You’re in Lebanon, where life is conducted in shifts: four hours with the boys, eating, reading, watching movies, followed by two hours alone in your head, pulling guard duty. This goes around the clock, nonstop, for four months. You sleep in your boots and shower when possible. Occasionally you go out on an ambush; every few days you scurry into the fortified area when the mortars come. But the majority of your days are dominated by the cycle: two on, four off; two on, four off; two on, four off.
At first there were showers on Mondays and Thursdays, then once a week, then nothing. It’s been fifteen days. You have four pairs of socks and five pairs of underwear but have given up the strict rotation you used to enforce. All told, you’re fifty soldiers. Twenty pazamnikim and thirty of you. But since you have six months less time-served than the pazamnikim, or veterans, they eat first, have their own bathrooms, get first dibs on the showers when the water trucks come. They’re also first to get leave.
There’s a convoy laboring up the hills to your outpost. It’s notoriously skittish, and bails at the first sight of trouble. Bails in bad weather. Bails when bad weather’s on the way. It can’t be counted on till you hear the heavy trucks whining up to the rear gate. But now you’ve received word: five vehicles have left Metulla. There are two fully sated soldiers on that convoy, smelling of clean laundry. ‘The precious cargo is on board’ is what the battalion commander said. That means the next two people in the rotation are up for leave.
You are not one of them.
Kobi and Gal, two pazamnikim, have been racing around the outpost in their dress uniforms for days. “Trust us, learn something,” they say. “You gotta be ready. Because when it pulls in, it draws fire, and when the Brigade Commander hears fire, the first thing he does is stop all convoy traffic in and out of the Security Zone. Ein yotzeh ve’ain ba. Nothing comes, nothing goes. In Lebanon, when you want to go home, you wear dress.”
You figure this is not the wisest advice that’s ever been dispensed. You figure that if ever there was a curse on the arrival of a convoy, it’s their un-shaved, un-washed, aftershave-splashed asses parading around this war-torn outpost in dress uniforms. So you decide not to thank them for their sage advice. You stay at your post. You’re doing your job, looking out over the coils of barbed wire, making sure nothing’s moving behind any of the big boulders on the slope beneath you.
But that only pisses the veterans off more. “What’s wrong?” Kobi says, “you’re bitter you’re not heading home tonight? Can’t you be happy for me?”
You say nothing. You shrug and really work your eyes over the landscape, moving your gaze in big U’s—down, across and up, then over; then down, across and up, then over; but they’re still checking you out, so you shrug and say, “No problem. I’m happy for you. Inside, I’m dancing. We’ll toast your happiness on Friday night with the Kiddush wine.”
“You should,” Kobi says, “one day you’ll be a pazamnik, too, asshole…but in the meantime, since you’re not getting out of here anytime soon, why don’t you give me your girlfriend’s number and I’ll fuck her for you, that way she won’t have to suffer.”
Kobi’s the King of the Pazamnikim. On Friday nights he wears a crown with real bull horns on it and is served first. He’s also the kind of asshole who has etched X’s on his weapon for each of the three lives he’s taken. But it’s best not to say anything to him: he can make your life a living hell and, anyway, you know your girlfriend would rather make a sailor’s knot out of her fallopian tubes than fuck Kobi. But your mind does not remain at ease.
Karin finished her army service months ago. She’s moved down to Eilat, where she’s working at a hotel and trying to get enough dives under her belt for dive master certification. The two of you have an Australia trip planned for when you get out—in eleven months, two weeks—but lately she’s been talking about cutting out early and having you meet her down there, “when it happens.” The “when” for some reason has taken on an indefinite tinge, like an “if”, like there should be a question mark at the end of it.
It’s because of Lebanon; you know that. It’s your second tour already and you know that she does that. She can’t handle the stakes, so she pulls away when you’re gone.
But the truth is she’s unable to even hear about your service. Like she wants you to do your time honorably, but she doesn’t want to know anything about it. Certainly not about the way it’s been scooping out your insides in little, bite-sized balls.
When you went to Gidoni’s funeral, at his kibbutz, out over the Sea of Galilee, a few of the girlfriends came. She passed. She has a job, she lives in Eilat, she’d only met him twice. You understood, but she didn’t want to hear about it afterwards, either. Late one Saturday night, with the frothy sadness of another few weeks in uniform settling in, you tried to set the scene, telling her how all the graves face the water, how there’s something harmonious about them and the soft lapping of the waves, but you felt her get restless as you spoke, so you never got into the whole story, the one you wanted to tell, about Gidoni’s blind father and the way he walked past each one of you before he eulogized his son, asking for your names, nodding as though he knew you, then running his hands over your wet faces, and how you could still feel his rough fingertips on your eyelids, a blessing that sometimes felt like a curse.
But the worst part is that instead of keeping it to yourself, you told the guys about Johann, her Swedish dive master. Now the guys have taken to calling out that name in the shower, grinding their hips and moaning. Worse, somehow, it’s become your nickname. It’s how your name appears on the guard duty lists. It’s what the company commander calls you.
So you tell Kobi to go fuck himself. He laughs like it’s a compliment and then turns all chummy, oozing sweetness and slime. He throws an arm around your shoulders and says he was just kidding. He calls you achi, my brother, with the accent firmly placed on the first syllable, and says he’s sorry. “How is Karin anyway?” he asks, “for real.”
His sidekick, Gal, jumps in before you have a chance to say a word. “How do you know his girlfriend’s name?”
“Believe me, if you saw her, you’d remember,” Kobi tells him.
“What, Johann has a hot girlfriend?”
Kobi squeezes you even tighter. You’re at the south gate. If anyone can see the convoy coming, it’s you, but so far, nothing, and the fact of the matter, you well know, is that you’ll hear it before you see it.
“Ooo-wah,” Kobi hoots. “Smoking hot.”
What the hell do you care? They’re right. Karin is hot. You try pulling the trucks up the hill with your mind. You feel them accelerate and it’s that feeling that keeps you from turning towards Kobi, that sinewy little ars with the big ears and the five o clock shadow, and kneeing him in the nuts. You pivot out of his embrace and walk the trench, flicking your finger in and out of the grip of your weapon.
The two idiots are off to the side, conferring. Your mind turns to the cool, curvy wetness of her body when she comes out of the sea, the way her hair holds the seawater.
In your head, you’re watching her retreat down the beach, slowly, in an uneven line, so you don’t notice Kobi till he’s by your side and talking again.
“Listen, kid, I’ve got a once in a lifetime offer for you,” he says.
You turn to him, trying to cover the question mark that’s written on your face. “See, Gal and I have been talking. We can get you a spot on the convoy. Six days off, back on the seventh.” He pauses for a beat, to let that sink in, and then continues. “All you have to do is enjoy your vacation as always. Just take Gal’s video camera and bring back some footage of Karin.”
“What do you mean footage, of Karin?” you ask.
He points at you and explains himself succinctly enough with his fist. You understand, but he tacks on an explanation anyway. “Fucking her,” he says.
You snort dismissively. But you don’t say no. You notice the quiet all around. It’s fall in Lebanon. The days are getting shorter. Sunsets are getting sad and cold. For now though the sun is strong and you watch what it does to the shiny oak leaves well below the trench. You wish this wasn’t the case, but you’re seriously considering the offer: Will you perform, will you make a face they’ll imitate forever?
Then you think of Karin. She’s in a ball, crushed.
You look at Kobi, at the smile wilting on his face, at the dull expectation, and you say, “No fucking way.”
But Kobi knows not to buy it. He hears the tremor of excitement in your voice and he nods at Gal, sends him rummaging through the duffel bag between his feet till he produces the camera. It’s wrapped in gray foam and covered with red and white Paratroop Brigade stickers. He takes it everywhere, even films in the dark on ambushes and in your quarters before bed. Lovingly, he hands it over to Kobi, who shows you how to open the small collapsible tripod and how to make sure the Record button is on. Then he points to where the red light would be and shows you the thick piece of green, army-issue tape that Gal’s put over it. “It’s for the ambushes,” he says, “but it’ll work for you too.”
His explanation makes you think like a soldier. When you’re given a chance to get out of the army, you grab it with both hands. Everyone knows that. Ten minutes now versus two weeks later? You take the ten minutes. You learnt that in the first week of Basic. Two weeks down the road, there could be war. Two weeks down the road, you could be dead. You’re like your forebears at Mount Sinai. They lived in the desert. They knew scarcity. You accept first and ponder later. It’s the mother of all gift horses.
“I’ll do it,” you say, “but how the hell are you going to get me a spot on the convoy?”
Kobi slaps Gal in the chest, smack in the middle of his double-breasted flak jacket. “Off, off, off,” he says, making quick shooing motions with his right hand.
The look on the tall man’s face says that this part of the plan had not been discussed in depth, but his muscular fingers obediently work the long Velcro seam.
“You’re serious?” you ask.
“Very,” Kobi says, holding Gal’s Kevlar vest up like a tailor.
“OK,” you say. And then, with the trucks whining up the hill, you slip on Gal’s flak jacket and sprint back to your quarters to pack a bag, the unwelcome warmth of his body radiating down your back as you run.
Personnel—you—ride in a Safari, a big bulletproof cage on wheels. You buckle your helmet, check the clasp, snap a bullet into the chamber, and watch the play of light and shadow through the firing holes as the truck bounces down the country road. Up ahead the commander of the convoy rides in an armored jeep. He sees the dense blanket of dusty green foliage and the towering hills on either side of the road. If a Sager Missile is launched, he has a good chance of seeing the bobbing, cigarette-in-the-dark glow of its advance. There’ll be about eleven seconds to impact, which is a lot, for him. By the time it comes over the radio and you make your way through the mounds of gear and the bulletproof partitions, forget it. So you focus on keeping your mind blank.
Back in Israel, the cigarette you pull out of your pack tastes different, plastic, civilian. But you don’t get more than two drags before a family of three pulls up at the hitching spot and offers you a ride all the way to Tel Aviv. The father’s driving and he has a random list of questions that seem to have been prepared in advance, or at least perfectly paced. He asks which battalion you serve in. You tell him. He nods and taps his fingers on the steering wheel to the radio. You settle back into your seat, behind the mom, rolling down the window for some civilian air. Then he wants to know what sector of the Security Zone you’re holding. So you roll up the window and lean forward again and tell him. Later he wants to know if it’s still like it was back in his day. You listen to a story or two, say “pretty much,” and leave it at that. But the questions keep coming for a while. Luckily, the mom asks to stop for the bathroom.
It’s dark already and you’re still two hours from Tel Aviv and around six from Eilat. The list of people you can call in Tel Aviv is short. There’s only one name on it. You put your phone card in the slot and punch in the numbers from memory.
“Adriana, hi, it’s me,” you say.
“Are you okay? Where are you calling from?” she asks.
“I’m fine,” you say, “I’m out on leave. Kind of unexpected.”
“Great!” she says, “but you know Karin is not home.”
“Of course,” you say. “I was hoping to surprise her tomorrow in Eilat and I was wondering…”
“If you could stay here? Of course. I’d be delighted.”
You tell her you think you’ll be in around nine thirty and then hurry back up to the car, where the family waits for you with the back door open.
Karin’s mother is cool. She’s nothing like your mom. Her hair is equal parts blond and silver and her face has kept most of its definition. Ever since the divorce from Shmulik she’s been living in the city. Her apartment’s clean and light and airy. And though she’s originally from Rotterdam, she’s laid an Israeli dinner on the table, which for all intents and purposes means breakfast. After she’s done the dishes and you’ve eaten a plate of date-filled cookies, she asks you about Lebanon. You give the usual soldier’s line, saying it’s better than the Territories because at least up there you know who the enemy is. She asks what you mean and you explain at length about the differences in procedure regarding opening fire. “In Lebanon,” you say, “you fire on anything that moves at night.” She nods, wide-eyed, and you get going on a story about a long column of wild boars that once surprised a sleepy machine gunner in your company.
When it’s over she smiles her northern European smile and looks at her watch. You’re shown to your room. It’s a study. Adriana, you know, is going for a doctorate in some kind of left-wing archaeological history of Israel, but it’s also clearly a bedroom. Although it’s probably used by all of Adriana’s children, the place reminds you of Karin. Her sneakers are in the closet and a few of her old posters are up on the wall. You see her picking out earrings for dinner and you watch what she does with her hair as she puts them on. That’s the image you try to take with you to sleep, but instead your mind turns to the video camera and you drift away feeling like the lowliest of swamp dwellers.
At noon you board a bus to Eilat. Four hours later, leaning against one of those orange public phones, the heavy-as-a-hammer receiver in your hand, the late afternoon heat envelops you. It’s thick and it sits on your face like a mask. Around you are a few sad, sun-weathered locals, enjoying the shade of the outdoor bus terminal, watching the tourists disperse. Like lizards on a hot desert rock, they’re careful not to move more than their eyes. You draw close to the phone, and out of habit lay an exposed arm on the hot metal. At first the slot doesn’t want to take your phone card, spits it out a few times, but you hold your own and in the end it puts through the call. In the instant before you hear her voice, there are the usual jitters, like it’s a first date. And you don’t know what to say or, more truthfully, how to sound. Happiness might be a bit much, especially since she’s been so cool of late. And you, you remind yourself, have not come with the purest of intentions. “Karin?” you ask.
She shouts your name, asks where you’re calling from.
“Tel Aviv,” you say, suddenly desperate to buy time, “I’m on my way to Eilat.”
“Is your kav over?” she asks.
“No, no,” you say, “I just got lucky with some leave, I’ll explain when I get there.” She sounds happy.
She asks for your ETA and you say 20:00. That gives you some hours to burn, so you walk down the hill, to the beach, to the only seashore in the country where the sun doesn’t set in the water. On the sand, you pull off your boots and peel off your socks. The Red Sea resembles a lake, the water sloshing around, hot and heavy, like a vast tub of mercury in the late afternoon light. You swim and turn your back on the horizon, watching the sun dip behind the jagged ring of red mountains that frame the city. Then you dry yourself off and get a beer. Within two sips, sitting barefoot on the barstool, you have a plan. You congratulate yourself on the detour, and, after another beer and a few cigarettes, make your way to her house.
‘Karin and Meital Live Here Happily’ say two smiling sheep on the door plate. You knock up above it, lightly, and she comes to the door smiling. As soon as she opens it, she is the realization of all your dreams, the sum of all you’ve ever wanted.
You breathe in her warmth. Your sense of smell is so damn good you could replace one of those uniformed beagles at the airport. There’s sweet fruit in her hair and honey on her skin. Before you even touch her lips you know every second of this is going to be archived in a steel-doored chamber of your mind and cherished, repeatedly.
She asks where you’re taking her for dinner and you say to the bedroom, and she, laughing, wraps her legs around your torso for the ride.
You make quick work of the little bit of clothes she’s wearing, leaving a trail behind you. Her flip flops are by the door, her hair clasp near the couch, her red tank top at the entrance to her room and her jeans by the foot of the bed. Naked in your arms, she laughs you off her neck and takes control. As you come closer and closer together, you’re surprised by the undisguised thirst in her voice, her urgency.
Afterwards, you order in. You eat in bed, naked, laying the take-out on a towel and feeding each other with chopsticks. She has a cold bottle of wine in the fridge and you drink it together, taking turns swigging from the bottle.
The next few days pass in bliss. You go to the beach every day in the late afternoon, like all of the locals, and drink, read, and lounge while she dives. It feels great to do nothing, to have nowhere to be, no one to answer to. You meet Johann, the real Johann, and he is polite. But before you know it, it’s Friday, and the weight of the weekend is bearing down on you.
On Saturday night you have to head back. Sunday morning first thing you have to be at the gate in Metulla. If the convoy actually departs and it departs without you, there’ll be hell to pay. So it’s tonight or bust. You have a dinner planned. Since you haven’t been able to tell her a thing about the deal in private, you figure post-dinner, before dessert, is the way to go.
The restaurant is dark and cool enough to feel comfortable in. You let her choose the wine and the two of you share your food, although you finish well before she does. While she eats you start to explain. You don’t want to whine about Kobi and his boys, so you explain how it feels up there.
She listens closely, her blue eyes wide, shiny, and understanding over the wine glass. She takes a big sip and refills her glass, nodding and telling you she understands but that it will be over soon. You pause for a breath. You know what you’re going to say. You’ve reviewed this several times, spoken it aloud in the shower. Mostly you’ll stick to the truth. But before she freaks out, before any of it really sets in, you’ll say that, “the ticket is just to mess with the focus, so it comes out so blurry they can’t see a thing. That way I bring back what I promised and they have nothing to watch.”
But before you say a word, she’s taken another big sip and has started to make speaking noises. Her voice is small and she says, “I want to talk to you about Australia.”
You nod and give her a drunk, go-right-ahead sign with your hand.
She looks at you strangely but doesn’t get derailed. “Well, I been doing two-a-days for a while now and the truth is I’ll probably be certified by the end of the month,” she says. “And I’ve been talking to Johann about the dive work down there and he says that I’d have to be there by November at the latest if I want to be an assistant dive leader on a boat.”
“And?” you say.
“And,” she says, playing with her silverware, “I got a ticket for November third.”
“That’s before I even finish my tour,” you say.
“I know,” she says, “but the thing is if I go down now I could get an assistant dive master job and then I’d have the money all set aside for when you come down and then we could travel together.”
Self-pity surges inside you as she reiterates the need to be down there before the start of the summer holiday. And because you know now is not the time for a fight, you’re understanding. “It makes sense,” you say.
And then you’re hearing about schools of fish that only live on the Great Barrier Reef and feed off the coral and the way it’s the only living thing visible from space, and she’s so excited she’s making warm petting movements in your palm, the kind of movements that mean I want to skip dessert, so you raise your other hand for the bill. And she tells all about the house you’ll have on the beach and the stews you can make in the evening and, oh God she loves you, and she knew you’d understand, and shit, she’ll miss you like crazy, but she’ll get everything straightened out. All you’ll need is the airfare, and that by the time you get down there she’ll have made enough money to travel and you can get a car and see the island in style, maybe even take a ferry over to New Zealand. “You’ll love Australia,” she says, and “hey, no worries mate.” Since you’ve been to the cash machine before dinner you have the right amount of bills to leave on the table to cover the meal and the tip, but she stops you and says, “it’s on me.”
Then she leads you out of the restaurant, holding your hand. And as you shimmy past the bar, you start thinking about the shelves in her bedroom. They’re made of pale wooden slats, spaced by gray concrete blocks. Before you met her you always thought that girls were neat freaks. That’s what your sisters are like. But her shelves are lumps of clothing, jeans turned inside out, sweater sleeves dangling down, clean and dirty laundry mixed. And as the two of you move towards the door, you see exactly where Gal’s video camera is going to go, and you know, for the first time since you left the base, that you’ll actually do it.
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