The Coin Game

I wish on falling stars. I make a wish at 11:11. I wish on birthday candles and math tests and every time I cross the street. But I’ve never tossed coins in a fountain to make a wish.

I like fountains, though. Harel and I had a habit of taking a picture with every fountain we passed. Then we’d taken a picture with all the fountains, so we stopped.

There was this moment, back in Queretaro just a week and a half ago, when he and I were in a museum and in the middle of its courtyard, there was this ornate fountain, its basin shaped like an eight-pointed star. I leaned over to admire the blue and white tiles inside it, for a moment thought of making a wish on those waters, but we didn’t have any coins on us. And yet, the moment lingered, drawn out, as though something were stirring, my pockets yearning for a few pesos to cast aside, the world waiting to grant our wishes.

There’s something special in throwing coins into fountains. That cold bit of metal in the palm of your hand stops being money and becomes something ethereal and dreamlike: what is the substance of a wish? It tumbles through the air, nearly disappearing as its edge turns to face you, alternating between two complementary yet competing faces: heads tails heads tails. Then it hits the water with a little plucking noise, and as it drifts downward into that fountain’s shallow abyss, its image wavers and wanders across the water’s surface. That massless wish given material belonging in the coin now trembles and shakes, the intent behind the motion–the clenched eyes, envisioned future, opening hand and flick of the wrist–start to dissipate as the magic melts into the world, catalyzed by the water, that penumbral element from which we all emerged at the dark dawn of time.

When I left Israel, a little more than six years ago to the day, I held onto three shekels: They meant something then, each of the three standing for something else, but I’ve since forgotten. I’d look it up, I know I wrote it in my journals, at least I assume I did, but they’re all in boxes and I’m not inclined to dig them out.

Once I had a penny collection. I think I had hundreds, maybe thousands, they filled up my turtle-shaped bank with its see-through sides all the way to the top, and I guess I was something like five or six when I lent the money to my parents and I’ve never had so many pennies since. I still have that turtle-shaped bank with its see-through sides, but now it doesn’t hold pennies; instead it holds my small collection of foreign coins, currency once made of money now turned to slivers of memory.

Another time I carved up a coin with a small saw, tracing out the blank space of the North Carolina sky around that historic moment when we were first in flight.

I keep my coins in a tzedakah box I made with my third graders the second year I was a madrich, or teacher’s aid, at my synagogue’s religious school. It’s a small cylinder about the size of a soup can wrapped in gold foil that’s been stenciled with the skyline of Jerusalem, stained with ink to bring out the details, and adorned with plastic emeralds. Tzedakah boxes are meant to hold coins for charity, but these days I make my donations digitally and the coins more often than not end up drying clothes at the local laundromat.

I used to say, letting every coin slide through its slit one at a time, “With these coins I gain three more,” hoping if I said it enough, it’d come true, and all those coins would add up.

Now when I make change, it rarely involves scraps of metal fastened in the shape of two-dimensional spheres. Instead I’m writing letters, having conversations, posting new blogs, volunteering on my hands and knees, trying to leave a positive influence instead of negative space around the small glow of this fire burning inside. Change, pocket change, is a thing of the past. Who pays with paper bills when all we use are debit cards? These days you can even shop entirely without a single physical exchange: only the card numbers matter now, and what are numbers but abstractions of concepts once founded upon simple counting, but now representing so much more meaningless breadth?

Sometimes I mean to write breadth and write breath instead.

It’s a common misconception, a perfect mistake, and suddenly I’m not talking about money, but I’m breathing, watching these slow inhalations quicken and my heartbeat speed up, and can you feel it, too? Those palpitations in your chest? Those streams of blood rushing through your veins? Did you know the average adult has nearly 100,000 miles of blood vessels wrapped around their body?

If all your vessels were laid end-to-end on the surface of the Earth, you’d wrap around it more than four times. You’d be dead, but you’d literally surround the entire Earth.

One hundred thousand miles is a long distance to consider. Just this weekend, I flew over 1,600 miles, and even that’s incomprehensible, really, when in a day I can walk three miles to and from my classes on campus at NC State, so in an entire semester, five days a week for sixteen weeks, I travel just about 240 miles–hardly an eighth of those 1,600 miles I flew Saturday night/Sunday morning, barely one percent the circumference of the earth, an indistinguishable, insignificant fraction of those 100,000 miles of blood vessels feeling the force of every heartbeat.

Sometimes I mean to write heartbeat and write heart beat instead.

It’s just a single space, a few pixels wide, but when the heart skips a beat, the whole body feels it–laid end-to-end, the whole Earth trembles beneath that one slip of white space on a digital screen, a projection of light that nowhere physically exists, and where that distance does exist–those 1,600 miles from me to Mexico–the heart literally shudders beneath its weight, unable on its own to cross any distance at all.

Saturday night as I boarded my plane, Delta Flight 1177, there were three coins in my pocket. It was all the money I had left after buying a bottle of water and a drinkable yogurt for dinner. Three coins, sixteen pesos, not even a full US dollar.

If I’d passed a fountain, I’d have made a wish.

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