by Marina Hatsopoulos
I’d be out in my bikini windsurfing if it weren’t for the risk of a rocket hitting me, but instead I’m under the shade of the olive tree by my building, wondering how long Iron Dome can keep shielding us. The Red Alert app says it’s been 11 hours and 53 minutes since the last rocket fired on Tel Aviv, so the clear blue sky could be stained at any minute. I’m cursing myself for saying I’d give up happy for interesting. You’re all wrong for me. And yet singularly perfect.
I open the apartment door to the smell of sautéeing onions. My mother is in the kitchen, but my eyes hone in on the two tickets sprawled out like bathers on the sliver of available counter while pots are stacked all around. She must have found them in my room.
“I thought it was over,” she says, squeezing lemon on a red mullet.
“It is. It’s over. Dead as the peace talks.” I lean to drink from the faucet, then wipe water on my face to cool off.
“So who’s going to the Amal Murkus concert tonight?” She nods at the tickets.
“Nobody. It’s not like I could’ve resold them, with rockets flying around the skies.”
“And what does your friend say about those rockets?” she asks, as if it’s all your fault.
She drops the bowl of lentils on the table with a thunk which makes me jump.
“This has nothing to do with politics. Or religion. It’s about a person,” I say.
“A person you hardly know.” She wipes her hands on her skirt.
“I know everything I need to know,” which simply means I know this feeling. When you exposed yourself, it uncovered me. If she knew you, she’d say you were a little off, which is true; it’s part of your magic. She sees my eyes sparkle but she can’t accept it.
“You’re delusional,” she says.
“It’s a happy delusion.”
“Think about all the moments that add up to a day and a life. Would you bring him to temple? Summer with his family in Gaza? Everywhere you turn you’d face conflict, most of it between you; you’d each hear every word differently. Relationships are challenging, Shamira, even in the best of circumstances. It’s our commonality that brings us together.”
“I’m not scared of conflict.”
“But do you want to live in it all day long? In your own home?”
She stops moving and puts my long curls behind my ear. She sees my pain.
I stand over the lentils and poke them with a spoon.
It was just five weeks ago—a sunny day in May before the sirens--when I first spotted you in your untucked linen shirt at The Heder, leaning on one leg as if tired by your height, hand cupped to your scruffy chin while you studied a photograph of a blond refugee. Your focus indicated that you were above the fray, not a follower.
When I approached, you spoke as if you knew me, and pointed out in your Arabic accent the complacence in the girl’s expression. You stood inappropriately close, brushing my arm as you surprised me with your thoughts. “Distinctions that coalesce only divide.” Curious to see the world through your eyes, I joined you for lunch by the sea. You showed me on your phone a gallery-worthy photo of graffiti--“one wall, two prisons”-- from the concrete barrier in Gaza. You listened to my opinions, squinting in the sun without agreeing, and then researched the etymology of my middle name. In just one hour you expanded my world. After you rushed back to your construction job, I finished your lemonade, savoring the sour and then sucking the sweet mint leaf. It’s not like me to linger, but I sat brimming with the residue of your presence: the duality of being tethered yet loose.
“This isn’t sustainable.” I’m talking about my pain, but my mother doesn’t get it.
“Read the paper; nothing changes,” she says.
“If you want to change the world, then let’s change it.”
Red Alert says it’s been 12 hours and 9 minutes now.
“You’re not in control of the world. You’re in control of yourself,” she says.
I wonder if that’s true anymore. You’ve short-circuited my wires, so all I can think about is how to try to stop thinking about you. She offers me a spoonful of rice, but it tastes bland compared to the rice you had me try up on the cliff at Jaffa.
After you fed me, I put my hand under your shirt onto your strong belly and there I found your heart beating. When I said our situation was impossible, you said it was too late for impossible. I felt compelled to tell you that my father’s business was in military surveillance equipment, but you didn’t react. “I’m going to be your lover,” you told me.
I collapse in a chair, leaning out of my mother’s way as she squeezes past to set the table. My feet are sore from wearing her pumps to work; she said I couldn’t wear red Converse with a white dress. She wants the best for me. Her arguments make sense. We’re rational beings, after all. If we can’t trust logic, then what do we have to hold onto?
“I’d get over him if I knew how,” I mutter. I lay, head in your lap, as you read a Darwish poem to me that you had written out on white parchment, adding your own alternative ending. My mother’s face softens and she puts her hand on mine. “You have to grieve.”
I try to imagine that one of those rockets hit you and you’re dead. My father would never find out, and then in theory everything could go back to where it was...except that my life is now split into two pieces--BEFORE and AFTER--with our five encounters stacked in between.
“Explain to me how to do that. It’s like when my teacher tells me to stand taller on the windsurfer: I know what that means and what it looks like, but I still don’t know how to do it.”
“You don’t need to analyze it. Just feel it,” she says. “And then release it.”
The real problem is that I don’t want to release it. I’m hooked on this emotion which has brought my rational mind to its knees.
“What did it all mean?” I plead. “These things don’t just happen for no reason.”
“That’s up to you. You need to decide what you make of it so you can move forward. You think you desire a life with him, but in fact you’re seeking the opposite: mystery and novelty. That’s not real life,” she says.
“Even if I accept that, it’s just awareness. The brain doesn’t always win these battles.”
The front door opens and my father’s hard-soled lace-ups crescendo toward us.
I told you all the ways he’d maim you if he found out. “Tell him,” you said. “He’ll come to respect me over time.” When I sighed, you said, “Forget about what isn’t. Focus on what is.”
“I have to tell him,” I whisper to my mother.
“If it’s over, then there’s nothing to tell.”
My father plods in with a loud thwack of his copy of Haaretz on the kitchen counter.
“Have you heard what the United States media has been putting out,” his voice thunders. Ironic that you had complained about the same thing. “I’d like to see what they’d say if they were the ones being attacked. I don’t know how long before the military calls you back.”
He always speaks to me in Russian, even though I answer in Hebrew; at work he does it so people don’t understand us. On the front page of the paper is a photo of fallen buildings and frightened children. Could one of those little faces belong to your sister?
“The cease-fire won’t stick,” he says, blowing white hairs off his eyes. “If you hear the siren, go to the safe room right away.”
He kisses my cheek. After we sit, he pours Campari for my mother and then himself. Blisters have formed from my mother’s pumps, so I slip them off under the table.
“You left work early today,” he says to me.
“What--you had someone else you wanted me to fire?” I ask.
“How did it go with the intern?” He offers me a drink, but I shake my head.
“Devastated. I told her how sorry I was, but somehow her humiliation at being let go trumped her concern for my feelings.”
“We’re defined by our actions. You’ll make a great CEO of this business one day,” he says, but we all know my brother was his first choice.
“You know what she said? She said we can take our perfect little family and our perfect little company and try to sleep at night with the knowledge that we’ve destroyed her life.”
“Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s still right.” He pats my hand.
“Difficult? Not for you, smoking a cigar in your office while I crushed her dreams. We should’ve given her a chance--taken time to explain what we needed.”
“You can’t turn a Ford into a Ferrari. Talking doesn’t change reality.”
“But maybe listening does. You should try it some time,” I say.
“You saw, she never fit in. She’s free now to find her place and contribute. We’re all people, after all; we all want the same things.”
“So I did my part, and then I looked around and the office was completely empty. Where were you? It would’ve been nice to talk about it,” I say.
“Talk? Enough talk.” He passes me the rice. “You’re too skinny. Eat more, talk less.”
When I put my dish in the kitchen, I spot the tickets and stick them in my pocket.
The skin on my leg touched your jeans, but I don’t know if you felt it. When we passed the site where you work, afraid to be seen holding hands, your stride pushed you ahead, so I asked if you were done with me. “Not even close.” You waited for me to catch up and picked a leaf out of my hair.
After dinner, my father sits back in his chair and opens the paper. He glances up at me.
“Put that phone away.” He tosses me a section of the paper. “Read something real.”
“There’s a concert tonight--I’m just checking if it was cancelled,” I say.
My mother looks at me sideways: if we’re done, why am I checking on the concert?
We danced on the beach in the middle of the night, and when you found out that I never perform, you made me sing a Jewish folk song. You didn’t know the words but you learned quickly and sang along, coaxing me louder and louder until we were practically screaming.
“We’re at war, Shamira. This is not time for concerts. I’m surprised Edan would even suggest taking you,” my father grumbles as he puts on his glasses.
I freeze and glance at my mother. It’s not that I forgot about Edan; it’s just that I’ve had other things on my mind. Mostly you. I swallow. I’ve been avoiding the topic for too long.
“I don’t think things are going to work out with Edan,” I say.
He puts down his paper. “You broke off the engagement?” He’s disappointed in me.
“Don’t say anything to his dad. I haven’t talked to him yet.”
“It’s okay to be scared about such a big decision, but you’re wrong to run away from it.”
“I’m not scared,” I say
“You’re indecisive. A CEO needs a backbone. Nothing’s ever black and white with you.”
“I’m perfectly decided: it’s over.” I crumple the tickets and toss them in the trash so my mother can see that it’s not just Edan I’m talking about. I’m done with both of you.
“I like Edan. Wonderful family. Such a nice kid,” my father says.
“Yes, he is nice, which may or may not be necessary, but it’s certainly not sufficient.”
My father shakes his head, but my mother, pleased that I tossed the tickets, signals for him to stay quiet, so he turns back to his paper. He’s silent for just a few minutes.
“Did you hear about this?” he says. “Six Arabs climbed to the roof of Ruslaha to post signs protesting their supply of defense equipment to the government.”
“I wonder what kind of desperation would lead someone to climb a roof just to voice their opinion,” I say. It’s something you’d say.
“Voices are fine, but not when they vandalize our biggest customer.”
“Sure, who cares about all that when there are revenues at stake,” I say.
“I care more about the half dozen engineers with families to support who I’ll have to let go if Ruslaha’s order doesn’t come through this quarter. These hoodlums should be put away.”
I peer over my father’s shoulder to see the picture and I blink twice. I keep thinking I see you everywhere I go because you’re all that’s on my mind, but up to now I’ve always been wrong. I lean in closer to see the back of a man on a rooftop planting your flag, strong arms flexed, and there’s no question about it. Your athletic posture, the untucked linen shirt, jeans down by your hips, tiny hoops in your ears, and the leather necklace wrapped twice around your dark neck are unmistakable. My heart accelerates. I want to grab the paper and gaze at your picture, but then I’d have to tell my father about you. You told me you were an activist, but I didn’t know what you meant. There’s so much I don’t know. So many questions I should’ve asked. How we squandered those minutes at the library, disregarding the Rubinger books we’d laid out while I studied your pouting lips and the beauty mark on your chin.
“They got away,” my father says. Who knows what would’ve happened to you if they had caught your face in the photograph.
The concert was scheduled to start at 8 pm, but it’s probably cancelled and there’s no way now anyway. It’s over. I understand why you protest, but what I don’t understand is how you thought we could ever bridge the distance between us. Why do you think I deflected your advances? Self-preservation. We have no future. One day you’ll be married to someone who says “I love you” in your mother tongue, and you’ll barely remember me. You might retain a fondness for my name, even my middle name, but I’ll just be an unfinished story you never tell.
In my bedroom, I kick off my mother’s shoes and toss my copy of Pride and Prejudice to the floor, collapsing on my bed in the dark. The blisters on my feet are tender, so I rub them as I close my eyes and listen with headphones to Amal Murkus.
Suddenly I’m jolted by the blast of the siren reverberating through the street into our apartment. I jump up and cover my ears. It’s 8 pm. Outside my window, pedestrians flee for cover: short, tall, fat, skinny, old and young. Each new passerby causes my heart to jump. Every person on the planet rushes past my building except for you. I’m not surprised, of course, but my stomach tightens and then my eyes glass over. Perhaps you’re just watching me from another window. Maybe you’re testing me, to see my reaction.
My father calls out above the noise for me to join them in the safe room, but I stand steadfast. He thinks he knows me, but all he sees is my ambivalence.
We sat under a eucalyptus tree at the edge of the beach in the afternoon heat. The first rocket had been shot the day before, reminding us that we were on different sides. You listened to my arguments without interruption and then, too confident to feign agreement, step-wise refuted every point which went contrary to your crafted world view. You criticized the authorities of both sides as not representing the voice of the people.
Then, allowing your soulful side to override your intellect, you looked into my eyes, lay your hand on my leg, and squeezed. You leaned toward me and your lips melted into mine so I tasted loquat on your tongue.
But this wasn’t possible. Not then, not ever. I pulled away and finally acted like a leader.
“I can’t; this is tearing me apart. I can’t pick between you and my family. I can’t be with you and still be me. There isn’t room for both.” I waited for relief to wash over me but it didn’t.
You didn’t look at me.
“You’re just scared to commit. Like you talk about singing, but instead you build your father’s legacy supporting the military machine. You never sing for anyone, because what if you were no good at something you actually cared about? One foot here, one foot there,” you said.
“And you’re in love with the tragedy of this whole thing. So what--we’re all broken.”
“Why can’t you take a stand?” you asked.
“I am taking a stand. You just don’t like the stand I’m taking.”
“I’ll wait,” you said, as if the world would ever change. “I’ll pick you up for the concert.”
“There’s no waiting, no concert. Don’t pick me up.” I scooped a handful of sand and let the individual grains slip through my fingers.
“Shamira! Come now,” my father bellows above the blare.
His voice is anxious, borderline hysterical. Ten years have passed, but his voice reflects the same panic as when he told me my brother had been killed defending an attack on Morag in the West Bank. I’m all that’s left, and each blast of the siren over the last few weeks has reinforced his vulnerability. I don’t want to add to his pain, but I remain on my bed, unmoving.
The last time I saw my brother, he was in uniform. He picked me up off my feet and kissed me with his sandpaper beard. He told me I was the brains behind the operation, not to let him down. After years of saying I felt like an only child, given our age span, I was forced to suffer the reality. He was 24 years old, like me now. I turn the volume to the maximum so I can’t hear my father’s cries over the vocals in my headphones, but the siren is pervasive.
The music fills the entire volume of my brain, pushing out my thoughts until all that’s left is panic. I squeeze my eyes shut to block my anguish about never seeing you again. The tingling starts in my nose. I’m used to this. The emotions have been arriving in waves; I just have to brace myself. I wrap my arms around my chest but I’m shaking so hard that I can barely hold on. What if I actually never see you again? The smells from dinner hang in the air. My heart is beating so hard it might shatter. I wish you were here to embrace my body with those arms of yours. I check my watch. It’ll be just a few minutes from when the siren started until the rocket strikes or gets destroyed. I can’t go to the concert if I’m dead. When I tear off my watch, as if to stop the passage of time, the plastic beads from my bracelet splatter to the floor: greens, blues, yellows with tiny hand-painted designs, each one unique. Your little sister made it for you when you left, and you gave it to me, but now it’s broken. The siren won’t stop.
What kind of person says those three words after five weeks? “Ani ohev otach.” I love you. You probably never said those words in Hebrew before that day. You were dismayed, green eyes misty, when I cut things off. I told you to stop talking but you didn’t listen. I got up to leave and my feet sunk into the sand, so I held onto the tree branch for support. I put my hands to my ears but I could still hear you: “I love you now and I’ll love you forever.” Ridiculous.
During a lull in the music I hear shouting outside. I open my eyes and peer through the window at the barren street. Look outside; there is no forever. There’s barely tomorrow. I lean over my knees, panting to catch my breath. The siren screams. I was ready to discard you like the others, but when I told you to get over me, you did that thing you do, mingling tender and salty in the same breath. “I’m not going anywhere, but tell me when you set your wedding date with Edan.” Only then did I recognize that we were playing by your rules, not mine.
A teenager is pointing toward the dark sky. A flickering light moves in the distance, so I track its trajectory. The rocket reaches its apogee and keeps flying toward its target, but I can’t tell if it’s close enough to hurt us and I don’t remember the statistics on Iron Dome. I clench my fists, eyes transfixed, then glance toward the hallway to the safe room where my father is still calling out. I hold my breath until the rocket is finally intercepted and detonated with a bang. It explodes into a ball of fire and then a cloud of dust, leaving the residue of wasted emotion to float like snowflakes to the ground.
The siren stops. I tear off my headphones and silence fills my head. I can finally hear my thoughts. I wonder who’ll pick up the mess that’s fallen, or for that matter everything else that’s up in the sky, even further out, way out--all the satellites and debris left floating in space, bound by gravity but free to orbit.
My father pops his head in to say good night before heading to bed. I stand up to unlatch the window. Voices emanate from below in a variety of languages, united in their tone of relief. Some teenagers cross the street, singing. Imagine joy within this turmoil! A breeze brushes past the olive tree where you had me listen to Amal Murkus, one headphone in your ear and the other in mine. After the singing dims in the distance, the vista is quiet, leaving me awestruck by the beauty of my country as if I’d never seen it before you pointed it out. The clouds have evaporated and splatters of moonlight reflect on the sea beyond. The sky, erased clean, now waits, boundless with space and possibility. The tension in my neck releases, so I lean my head back and take a breath. Leaves rustle, and a puff of wind warms me with the fragrance of jasmine.
Off in the distance, a faint sound emerges like a cry, and it takes me a moment to recognize the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. I turn my head like a cat and strain to hear it. After a pause, the voice returns, swelling with lyrical sounds I don’t understand. I’ve heard it every day of my life, but this time I listen. The cadence—almost a wailing, certainly nothing I could write in musical notation--swallows me into its beauty which is universal and timeless. I’m overwhelmed by that feeling I had when we were together: liberated but connected. You taught me the proper pronunciation and intonation, but I never said those words to you. “Ana bahebak,” I whisper now. I love you. Five syllables which form a little poem.
I thought I knew the range of life’s emotions, but my world has exploded with color and intensity. Who can predict what’s going to come out of your mouth, or when you’ll just sit, absorbed in thought. I slip my bare feet into my red Converse, relinquishing the dull throbbing of my calluses in favor of a stinging bite. I grab my cell and my headphones, because that’s all we’ll need. The siren has stopped now, so I’ll say those five syllables to you, and then we can lie on the sand and listen to the music—maybe even sing with it--just you and me, under the vast and clear night sky.