Iron Dome

Short Story published in Pooled Ink: 2015 NCW Contest Winners

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, 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. Everywhere you turn you’d face conflict, most of it between you. 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, 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. 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 with your fingers, I put my hand under your shirt onto your athlete’s belly, where 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 surfboard: I know what the words mean and what it looks like, but that doesn’t mean I can do it.”

“You don’t need to analyze it. Just feel it,” she says. “And then release it.”

The problem is that I can’t let go. 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.”

“It’s up to you to give it meaning, 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.” 

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 let someone else go?” I ask.

“So you heard about the intern.” He offers me a drink, but I shake my head. “You need to learn from this. 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.

“We should’ve tried harder,” I say.

“Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s still right.” He pats my hand. 

“We should’ve given her a chance—taken time to explain what we needed, and made sure she understood.”

“Talking doesn’t change reality.”

“What about listening?” 

“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.” 

“It would’ve been nice to talk about it first,” I say.

“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. Passing 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 folk song. You didn’t know the words, but you learned and sang along, coaxing me louder and louder until we were practically screaming.

“We’re at war, Shamira. This is no time for concerts. I’m surprised Edan would even suggest taking you,” my father grumbles as he puts on his glasses.

At the mention of Edan, I freeze and glance at my mother, then swallow. 

“I don’t think things are going to work out with Edan,” I say.

He puts down his paper. “You broke off the engagement?”

“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 guys climbed to the roof of Ruslaha to post signs protesting their supply of defense equipment to the government. They should be put away.” 

“I wonder what 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. If Ruslaha’s order doesn’t come through, I’ll have to let go of half a dozen engineers who have families to support.”

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 collapse 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 earbuds to Murkus. 

I flinch at the blast of the siren reverberating through the street into our apartment, then jump up and cover my ears. It’s just after 8 pm. Outside my window, pedestrians flee for cover: short, tall, fat, skinny, old and young. Every person on the planet rushes past my building except for you. I’m not surprised, 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 afterwards, too confident to feign agreement, step-wise refuted every point which went contrary to your crafted world view. 

Allowing your soulful side to override your intellect, you looked into my eyes, put your hand on my leg, and inched your fingers under the folds of my dress to squeeze my thigh. The only thing between us were a few layers of cloth, and then there was nothing between us at all, just the immeasurably slow pleasure of each moment, in no kind of rush, savoring every millimeter of movement with unbearable patience. Not pulsating, not even cascading, but an excruciatingly slow building-up, like a four-disk opera. All I could hear was your breath. Your eyes were fixed on mine, watching my state of mind to keep us in the same place. You leaned toward me and your lips melted into mine so I tasted loquat on your tongue. 

When my meandering thoughts hit the usual land mine, I pulled away.

“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 looked away, and said, “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.”

“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 grains slip through my fingers.

“Shamira! Come now,” my father bellows above the blare. 

His voice is anxious, borderline hysterical, as it was ten years ago, when he told me my brother had been killed defending an attack on Morag in the West Bank. Each blast of the siren reminds him that I’m all that’s left. I don’t want to compound his sense of vulnerability, 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 faced with the reality. He was 24 years old, like me now. I turn the volume up until I can’t hear my father’s cries over the vocals in my earbuds.

The music fills my brain, pushing out my thoughts. I squeeze my eyes shut to block out the possibility of never seeing you again. The tingling starts in my nose. I’m used to this. The tears have been arriving in waves; I just have to brace myself. I curl into a ball, shaking and moist, but my own embrace isn’t yours. The smells from dinner hang in the air. 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. This isn’t fair; I never asked for this. Why you? I tear off my watch, and 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, and that siren won’t let up.

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 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, mixing salty and sweet in the same recipe: “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.

Outside my window, a teenager is pointing toward the night 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 teeth, 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 earbuds 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 of relief emanate from below in a variety of languages. Some teenagers cross the street, singing. Imagine joy within this turmoil! A breeze brushes past the olive tree where you had me listen to Murkus, one earbud 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 a beauty both universal and timeless. I’m overwhelmed by that feeling I had when we were together: liberated but connected. Me, you, us—three different things. 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, all shades of gray, but now my world has exploded with color. 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 earbuds, 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.