“Hello?” I answered the hotel phone, trying to sound awake and certainly not hungover.
“Man, you’re still sleeping?! It’s 2pm,” Sharon snickered on the other end.
“Hey, I didn’t think it was kosher to make phone calls on Shabbat,” I said, understanding that observant Jews turn off their phones and other electrical devices on Saturday — “Shabbat” in Hebrew — the Jewish day of rest.
“Listen, I’m at my neighbor’s house right now. They’re Christian. I handed their teenage son the name of your hotel on a piece of paper, and he called your hotel for me. He’s holding the phone away from my ear so I can speak with you. Technically, he called you. But never mind all that. I’m calling to confirm you didn’t bang the hot Russian hostess from the restaurant by your hotel last night,” Sharon said.
“How did you know about her?”
“I’m in the Army. I notice everything,” Sharon said, pausing for a second. I could hear his grin through the phone. “Okay, I saw her right before I dropped you off at your hotel. I knew if you saw her and she saw you, there could be trouble. That’s why I yelled, ‘Stay away from the Russian girls’ yesterday,” he responded.
“Damn, you’re good.”
“Yeah, I had dinner at that restaurant.”
“Of course you did,” Sharon interjected.
“She asked if she could join me for a drink.”
“Of course, she did,” Sharon interrupted again.
“But I said I wasn’t feeling well, so I left,” I said.
“Come on, man. This poor kid is getting an arm cramp holding the phone, and you’re telling me nothing happened? The only reason this kid agreed to hold the phone was because I promised him some juicy stuff from a true American player,” Sharon cajoled.
“I’m serious. The owner of the restaurant vented to me about his crumbling business, and it killed my evening. I was in no mood for conversation or anything else,” I said.
“Restaurant business in Israel is tough, what can I say?” Sharon said, then changed the topic. “Do you need a ride to the airport tomorrow? I can take you and Lori’s mom.”
“Yes, we could use a ride to the airport. Thank you,” I said.
We hung up.
Tel Aviv was quiet that Saturday afternoon. Walking was the transportation method of choice; small knots of people strolled along the sidewalks and spoke quietly and casually amongst themselves.
It was hard to believe that we were still in the midst of an international conflict.
The following day, Sharon drove Helen and me to the airport. Helen was unusually quiet during the drive.
We boarded our flight and Helen settled into a window seat, She maintained a trance-like stare into her outside viewing pane and didn’t say a word until Israel’s beautiful coastline was only a faint beige strip behind us.
Tears welled up in Helen’s eyes. She said that she felt lacerated, blessed to plant her feet on the Holy Land’s soil but cursed to fly so eagerly away from it.
As soon as we landed at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome, I received a text from Lori.
“Please rent a mobile phone for my mom. I need to be able to speak with her directly while she’s here in Rome. Thanks.”
Helen and I found a mobile phone rental booth in the airport. After a couple of signatures and forty Euros, Helen had a Europe-wide cell phone. She called Lori immediately.
“Can you believe I have a European cell phone? Unbelievable.”
We spent four days touring Rome as a family. We visited the Vatican. Twice. Oohed and aahed over the Coliseum. Gorged ourselves on lofty portions of pasta (I speak mostly for myself on that count).
On the last day of our Rome visit, Helen said, “Such a shame we have to go back to Israel to catch our flight back to Florida.”
“Fly with Lori and girls back to Florida,” I offered.
“No, it’s okay, we made this this far. What’s one more night in Israel?”
The following day, Helen and I flew back to Israel. This time around, we knew what to expect — or so we thought.
During the flight to Israel, we realized that we had forgotten to return Helen’s all-European rental mobile phone. Helen persisted she committed a felony and was destined to end up in a European prison for stealing the phone. I assured her that I would mail it back to the mobile phone rental company from Israel, and her near brush with jail would be behind us very soon.
Our plane landed in Israel without any unexpected events. The micro-second our plane touched the runway’s pavement, an overwhelming sense of easiness settled into my stomach.
We disembarked from our El Al flight and made our way to the airport’s passport control checkpoint. Helen and I agreed that she would pass through the checkpoint ahead of me. She spoke to the passport control agent for no more than three minutes and was admitted to Israel with ease.
“I will see you on the other side,” Helen said, walking through the automated doors between the passport control booths that immediately closed behind her.
I approached the passport control agent with my passport in hand.
“Passport, please,” demanded the female agent in a monotone voice, making no eye contact in the process.
The agent snatched my passport out of my hand and looked me up-and-down with disgust in her eyes. She grabbed the phone with Floyd Mayweather-like hand speed and made a sound akin to hocking a loogie into a 1970s-style rotary phone’s receiver. Before she hung up the phone, a male agent grabbed me by my right arm.
“Please follow me. We have several questions for you.”
“Wait, I’m traveling with someone. My ex-mother-in-law. She crossed to the other side already, and I need to tell her that I’m going with you,” I pleaded.
“You can speak with her once you answer our questions. Let’s go!” the airport security agent retorted, tightening his grip on my arm and pointing toward closed double doors to the right side of the passport control checkpoint. The closed doors were guarded by two men in plain clothes with machine guns all too comfortably strapped over their right shoulders.
As we approached the two plain clothes officers, they impressively swung the closed doors open in unison. The agent continued to manhandle my right upper arm and said with petulance, “Enter!”
I felt hundreds of pairs of eyeballs following my every step as I entered the open doors. They all seemed to know something I didn’t.
The doors led to a dark and airless hallway. Only a faint light was detectable at the end of hallway. I counted fifty steps until the faint light became a well-lit doorway to another room. “Find a seat. We will call your name when it’s your turn,” commanded the agent.
The room, I later learned, was the Ben Gurion Airport’s detention center. Detainees may remain in this concrete fishbowl for several days until logistics can be arranged for a return flight home or another long-term confinement solution is found.
“Oh fuck!” I blurted out as I was ushered into an atrocious-smelling room. Summertime body odor from those who may consider deodorant as an unnecessary luxury combined with piles of dirty diapers in the corner of the room were enough to make me gag instantly. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want to breathe.
The wretched room was a thirty-by-forty-foot windowless holding cell with mostly, if not all, Arabic occupants. The incumbents sat silently in small, uncomfortable metal chairs that outlined the room’s white walls. Entire families sat together and watched a barely audible Arabic movie on a black-and-white television that hung from the low ceiling. Children had parched and sad lips. Mothers had concerned and scared expressions. Fathers had weary and suspicious eyes.
I saw an empty chair in the far corner of the room and walked tentatively towards it. Again, beady brown eyes watched my every step. I sat myself down in the hard metal chair. Thirty seconds and few whispered Arabic words later, the family of six to my immediate right rose, walked across the room and sat in an open area on the floor.
“I guess they don’t like Mexicans,” I said jokingly to myself.
I was worried about Helen. Did the airport officers inform her that I was apprehended for additional questioning? Was she okay? She had no phone. The all-European phone was tucked away in my suitcase.
I was detained for two hours until three Israeli officers shouted my name across the room.
“Raygoza, Marc, please come with us,” the tallest of the three officers shouted.
I followed the officers back out of the horrid-smelling room and into the dark hallway.
Directly across the hallway was an open door; it had been closed when I was brought in. It contained a small office with a metal table and chairs.
“Sit, please,” one of the officers ordered while the other two remained standing by the door. He continued, “You left Israel four days ago, and now you are back. Why?”
“My travel companion, Helen, and I returned Tel Aviv to catch our flight back to Miami tomorrow morning.” I responded. “We spent four days in Rome with our family. They didn’t feel comfortable coming to Israel considering the existing situation here.”
“Are you referring to the ex-wife and two daughters who never showed up at the Barcelona airport like you said they would?” he questioned sharply.
Stunned by his question, I nervously responded, “Yes.”
“The El Al Security agents waited for your wife and kids, but they never showed up. Either you’re a very good liar, or maybe you’re telling the truth, but now I believe you are a trained liar. Which is it, you are telling the truth or not? Is that lady really your ex-mother-in-law? Other agents are talking to her too right now in a different room. We may need to keep her for a couple of days for questioning, she not cooperating with us.”
“Helen is also being detained? For what reason?”
“She is your accomplice, no?” he asked.
“My accomplice for what? If my crime is stupidly traveling to Israel in a middle of a conflict, then yes, she’s my accomplice,” I shot back.
“Listen, I can keep you and your accomplice here at the detention center for several days if you do not cooperate and answer my questions truthfully,” he said.
We both stared at each other for at least a minute. I didn’t say a word — I couldn’t, because I couldn’t believe this conversation was real. I felt like I was in a bad dream with vivid smells all around me.
“According to Helen, you have plans tonight. What are your plans?”
“Plans?” I was drawing a complete blank — I barely knew my name at this point. “Yes, we are staying at my buddy’s house tonight. He is picking us up from the airport.”
“What is your friend’s name?”
“Sharon.” I said.
“Sharon, what?” he followed.
I told him Sharon’s last name, and how we spent last Friday in Tel Aviv and Haifa. He asked for Sharon’s phone number. I told him the number was stored on the phone that was confiscated earlier by the other agents.
“I will be right back.”
After 20 minutes, the officer returned.
“I tried calling Sharon, but he didn’t answer. Wouldn’t you think he would answer his phone if he was truly expecting your call to pick you up from the airport?“ He paused. “I will be right back.”
I was very worried about Helen. I was concerned how the airport security might be treating her. I was pissed about this situation and pissed at this asshole security agent, but I was especially concerned about Helen’s well-being and safety.
Another twenty minutes passed, the officer came back and told me to follow him. He walked me to the same passport control booth that originally pulled me aside for questioning.
“You may go. Please grab your personal belongings.”
No other explanation was provided. No apology. Essentially just a “get the hell out here.”
I grabbed my things, then strode past the booth and through the automated doors to where Helen stood. She began to sob uncontrollably.
“Where were you?” She yelled through her tears.
“I was detained for questioning.”
“I have been standing here for hours waiting for you!” she continued to yell.
“Yes, I waited in the same spot for three hours waiting for you to come through those doors!”
“You didn’t speak with any airport security officers for anything?”
“No, I asked a couple of airport officers if they knew where you went, but they ignored me.”
I told Helen that I was retained and questioned about our trip back to Israel.
“Probably because you didn’t shave. You could pass for a thug or a terrorist,” Helen replied, regaining her composure and chuckling slightly.
My phone rang.
“Where are you, dude? I have been waiting for your call,” Sharon asked.
“I was detained for three hours. The airport officer told me he called you, but you never picked up your phone.”
“Nobody called me. Those guys are trained to lie and make you talk. Next time have them call me in your presence. Anyway, I’m on my way to get you.”
A half-hour later, Sharon arrived at the airport.
“Next time, shave before you come to Israel. You look like an Arab.” Sharon said in greeting.
“I told you!” Helen said, getting her licks in too.
After a peaceful and relaxing evening in Tel Aviv with Sharon and his family, it was time for Helen and me to board our flight to Miami.
We took our seats, she at the window, and I in the aisle seat.
Helen smiled and said, “We should come to Israel again. I had such a wonderful time here, after all.”