Authors: Ayelet Tsabari
As Uri watched the sepia movies his teacher had screened in history class, the stiff, clownish, fast-moving soldiers waving from tanks and marching in the streets, he wished he had been born earlier, back before independence, when the pioneers had built kibbutzim and paved roads and hid weapons and rebelled against the British, when soldiers cried at the Wailing Wall and there was a purpose, a greater meaning, a larger battle. It seemed like everything of significance had happened before he was born. In his last year of elementary school, he had written a poem about it, titled “Other Wars,” which had won his school poetry contest, earning him publication in the school paper and a month of mockery from the boys in his grade, who recited parts of it with a lisp and substituted the word
appeared in the poem.
That first night, Uri sat on his parents’ bed with his dad, their gas masks pressing red marks around their faces. Uri had fastened the straps so tight that his chin ached. They had sealed the room a few days earlier: covering the windows with heavy-duty plastic sheeting
and duct tape like the IDF spokesman had instructed on TV, storing food, water and board games in the closet. Now they stared at the screen, where a blonde, smiling woman demonstrated strapping on a gas mask, placed a mild-mannered baby in a plastic crib, soothing him through a transparent sleeve. The mask smelled of rubber, like a new toy, and Uri could hear his breathing as though he were underwater. He thought of his mother, wondering if they had sealed her room at the hospital, if the nurses made sure she wore her gas mask. He hoped that her room was high up, where the gas was unlikely to reach. When she was first admitted, his father had told him that she was on a retreat. When Uri figured it out—overhearing hushed phone conversations—his father said that his mother couldn’t have any visitors, but he knew his father visited and his aunt once asked him if he’d been yet. Secretly, he was relieved not to have to visit his mother. It had been hard enough to be around her those few weeks before she left.
When the first missile hit, Uri’s heart lurched in his chest like a jerked knee. His father—looking like a frightened giant ant—wrapped his arm around him and pulled him closer. Five or six more explosions echoed in the distance, sounding like fireworks on Independence Day, or a fighter jet that had broken the sound barrier. And then one more, closer this time; the seventh-floor apartment walls shuddered with the reverberation. Uri’s body was tense, his jaw clenched, but it was the kind of fear that put things into proportion, making every other fear he’d ever felt—of failing a test in school, of jumping headfirst into the swimming pool, of embarrassing himself in front of Avital Ginsberg (back when he used to like her, which he no longer did)—seem trivial. It was the kind of fear that made him stronger, a man.
The following day, Yasmin called.
It was a cool, sunny January morning, the air as crisp as broken glass, and Uri and his father sat on the couch in their living room, watching the IDF spokesman on TV. The missiles had fallen in and around Tel Aviv, the spokesman said, pushing his squared glasses over the bridge of his nose. None of the missile heads was chemical, and there were no casualties. He urged everyone to stay at home and keep calm. Then they cut to shots of panicked crowds lining up at Ben Gurion airport.
“I’m coming home,” Yasmin said. The line crackled and her words echoed faintly.
Uri’s heart gave a little start: surprise, delight, anticipation. Then he remembered that he was still mad at her. “When?” he said coolly, turning away from his father’s outstretched arm.
His dad reached over and pried the phone out of his hand. “Don’t come,” he said. “Everyone is leaving. If we had a place to go we’d be leaving too.”
“I’m coming.” Uri could hear his sister’s voice on the other line. “And that’s that.”
Yasmin knocked on their door
two days later, clad in an Indian outfit: silky blue pants and a matching tunic studded with white and silver rhinestones, and a long, sheer scarf wrapped around her neck, its one end trailing behind her, brushing the floor. Her hair was short and sprouted small curls, and she had a teardrop-shaped sticker in the middle of her forehead. Even with the tattoos crawling up her arm and the ring threaded through her lip, Uri was startled by how much she had grown to resemble their mother: her smile, her eyes, the fair skin, which Uri had always envied. Yasmin screamed, dropped her bag and swallowed him into a hug: incense, cigarette
smoke and foreign spices. “You’re gigantic.” She ruffled his hair, felt his arms. “And what’s this? Muscles? What have you done with my little brother?”
“I’m still the shortest in my class.” He looked into her eyes briefly.
“Well, you’re bigger than I remember.” She flounced in, taking over the space, dropping her bags, tossing her scarf over the couch, removing her earrings and placing them on the table. “Oh my God.” She grabbed him again and hugged him hard. “I missed you so much. Tell me everything. Wait, where’s my gas mask? I’m dying to try it on.”
Uri led her to the safe room and she nodded in appreciation. She pressed the plastic sheet stretched over the window with her palm, as if testing its durability. “Weird,” she said. She threw herself on their parents’ bed, flinging off her flip-flops. “So strange, being here. I was just in India, like, a few hours ago.” She turned and sniffed the bed covers. Uri looked away. “I can’t even smell her anymore,” she said.
“She’s been gone a few weeks,” Uri said.
Yasmin tapped the space beside her and Uri sat down next to her, ankles crossed. He studied the pattern on the wooden door leading to his parents’ washroom. “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” she said. “It just seemed like it was best. Seeing me might have driven her over the edge.”
Uri chewed on his bottom lip as if to stop the things he wanted to say from spewing out, things like, “What about Dad and me?” and “Spare me the excuses,” which was his mother’s phrase, one she had often used when speaking to Yasmin.
He had been little when Yasmin was a teenager, but he still remembered the fights she and their mother used to have, spectacular displays of passion and melodrama that left Uri and his dad—the
gentle, collected portion of the family—in awe. In high school, Yasmin ran away several times, hitchhiking to Sinai and the Galilee, staying God-knows-where, doing God-knows-what. Even when she was home, she got herself into all kinds of trouble: there was an affair with a substitute teacher, there were nights when she stumbled home late and then passed out on their bathroom floor, drunk.
Uri concentrated on his socks, curling and uncurling his toes. Their father walked into the room then and Yasmin jumped off the bed to hug him. Uri took the opportunity to slip out. He grabbed his skateboard and his gas mask and rode the elevator down to the parking lot behind their building, where his dad allowed him to play, close enough that he could make it back if a siren sounded.
It had always been an adjustment, letting Yasmin back into their lives. She had taken off to Sinai right after army service, then Amsterdam, then India, and had come home sporting a new haircut, a new tattoo, a nose ring, a pierced eyebrow. She stayed with them until she found somewhere else to crash, worked and saved money for a few weeks or months, then left again. There was no reason to believe that this time would be any different.
It had been over a year and a half since he’d last seen her—the longest she’d ever been gone—and so much had happened since. Uri wasn’t sure where to start catching up. They had always been close, despite her long absences and the eleven-year gap between them. She was the only fun person in Uri’s family, a group of serious people with stern faces and tight lips, whose gatherings resembled political conferences he had seen on the news. His father had a permanent groove wedged between his eyebrows and his shoulders were stooped in surrender, as though the whole world weighed upon his small, wiry frame. His mother was fun sometimes; on a good day she was shiny and beautiful and charming,
she sang, she put on funny accents, she was the life of every party. But her bad days were so bad that it never quite seemed worth it.
Yasmin was the one who took him to movies and to the beach, made him hot chocolate with melted scoops of ice cream. And she was the only one in his family who knew about his poetry. In fact, she had gotten him into it. A few years ago, when she still lived at home, they started a game: sitting at the table over lunch or breakfast or hot chocolate, they gazed through the kitchen window, finding metaphors or stories in the world out there. They watched people on the sidewalk, or falling leaves, or cars in traffic, or shapes in the clouds, or faces in the moon. Yasmin would get excited by the things he said and yell, “Amazing! A poet is born!” She’d slap the table, or let her mouth hang open in awe or pretend to swoon. “Seriously,” she used to say. “If you don’t write it down I’m going to have to kick your ass.” And once she was gone and he had no one to play with, he did.
when the siren cried, Uri and Yasmin hurried to their parents’ bedroom. By then, Uri and his father had developed a routine. There was no talking as they put on their gas masks. Uri turned on the TV, his dad wetted the same towel—the one his mother had taken from a hotel in Eilat during a family vacation—and stuffed it in the gap under the door. Uri wondered how a single wet towel was going to protect them from nerve gas. In his head he started to compose his next poem.
This is my generation’s war. A war fought with plastic sheets and duct tape, a wet towel stolen from a hotel room in Eilat, a picture of a sandy beach on a sunny day.
After the poetry contest—the bullying that followed—he had conceded that poetry was nothing short of social suicide
and resolved to quit writing at once. Being the shortest, youngest boy in class was challenging enough. And what was the point anyway? There was no future or fame in poetry.
Last year, he had found a notebook in his father’s nightstand filled with scribbled verse, dated decades ago. He struggled to decipher the handwriting; he couldn’t even tell how good the poetry was. When he asked his mother, she told him that his father had given up writing when they met because he thought it was impractical for someone like him, and went on to become an accountant instead. Uri understood. The poetry they taught at school, the books he found in the school library, were mostly written by old Ashkenazi men. He had never heard of a Yemeni or Iraqi poet, or any Mizrahi poet for that matter. His father had come from a poor Yemeni family, had grown up with no electricity in a tiny two-room bungalow in the Yemeni Grove in Tel Aviv; had worked since he was a kid to help his parents, who arrived in Israel with nothing and hardly spoke Hebrew.
His mother, who was born in Baghdad to a family of scholars, had told Uri that her parents disapproved at first of the frail, dark-skinned Yemeni boy with whom she had fallen in love, but that his father had walked to their home in Ramat Gan and pleaded with them, promising to work hard, give their daughter the life she deserved. “He was always a romantic,” his mother had said, smiling as though reliving the moment.
Uri never told his father he wrote poetry, but he ended up finding the school paper in Uri’s room. “It’s just this stupid thing I had to do for school,” Uri said, and his father eyed him strangely but said nothing. Later, Uri saw that his father kept the paper on his bedside table, tucked between books.
Last summer, in preparation for junior high, Uri started an
exercise routine. He didn’t want to wait, like his father, until he was older. Junior high was his chance for a new start; half the kids there didn’t know him as the “nerdy poet boy.” It was time to change direction, find a more manly vocation. Inspired by his history textbooks, the heroic men in uniform, he’d decided he’d like to become an officer in some elite unit when he grew up, maybe even a pilot. He knew there weren’t many Mizrahi pilots out there—he wasn’t sure why—but this was something he could work at. He had five years before he’d be called up, five years to build the kind of stamina and character and strength heroes are made of. Plenty of time.
He took up jogging, did daily sets of sit-ups and push-ups. He asked his father to install a chin-up bar in his room. He saved the money given to him on his birthday and bought himself a skateboard, and every day between two and four, when the streets were siesta-quiet and the sun placed its hot, sweaty palm on his forehead, he practised jumps and new tricks. He found the sound of the skateboard crunching gravel, hitting pavement—like cracking branches—oddly satisfying. But it was during these times, skating or running up the stairs to Monkey Park, that some of his best poems were born.
Yasmin posed in front of the mirror in her gas mask while Uri and his father sat on the bed and waited, trained for the faded echo of the missiles, which Uri always felt as an amplified heartbeat in his chest. She turned to them. “I have to go get my camera.”
“It’s too late,” their dad said.
“It’s not even thirty seconds away.”
“Just wait, will you?”
Yasmin rolled her eyes at Uri. Then they heard the missiles hit their targets, and Yasmin froze, her eyes widening behind the
mask. She joined them on the bed and clutched Uri’s hand. “Wow, you can really hear them.”
“Did you think they weren’t really shooting them?” their father said. “It’s not a joke. It’s a war. People get hurt.”
“I thought no one had died,” Yasmin said.
“Yet,” their father said.
Yasmin glanced at Uri and mimicked their father’s stern face, whispering, “It’s a war, people get hurt.” Uri smiled and looked away, grateful to the war for bringing his sister back. She made being stuck in the safe room with his father a little less lonely.
Within days, Yasmin’s touch transformed their house,
wiping away months of neglect and disregard. Even before his mother’s hospitalization, the house had been in bad shape. First, his mother stopped tidying, then it was the laundry, piled up high on the floor by the washing machine, and finally she gave up showering, her hair growing an oily film, smelling sickly sweet, like wilted flowers. After she was gone his father hired a house cleaner who came every two weeks, but the rest of the time the apartment reeked of socks and sleep and ripe bananas. Uri didn’t mind. There was something about living with his dad that prepared him for later, for the army, where guys shared rooms and tents and bodily odours, bonding without ever talking about their feelings. He loved watching soccer with his dad: the living room TV-blue, the coffee table littered with glasses and dirty plates, the two of them rising from their seats, pounding the table, yelling at the screen, grateful for the chance to be angry at something.