Even in sunny Tel Aviv, the winds of war were in the air. It wasn’t just the airplanes flying overhead, on their way up north to bomb Iranian targets in Syria, or the outdated gas masks that Mira’s son kept picking up from benches and bringing home. There were more ominous signs, strange behavior on the part of people who should have known better, friends and strangers alike revealing information about themselves that should have been kept under lock and key for at least a lifetime. It started off as small things, hastily-scrawled notes on storefronts that Mira noticed as she passed by, conveying to customers that the employee had “gone out for coffee,” without indicating, as was customary, when they would be back. Then, a day after Leo came home from school and announced that Matan’s parents had purchased a small summer home in Greece, Mira ran into Idan, who told her that he had recently purchased a small summer home in Greece; and after that, a frantic phone call from Avi, asking if Mira wanted to pool her resources with him and purchase a small summer home in Greece.
About the “Dani’s Bomb Shelter Renovation Services” flier tacked to the tree across the street, Mira uttered not a word.
But there were things even more disconcerting than the thought of dying young.
There was divorce, and the freedom it afforded people who were not divorced to pull Mira aside and confide in her things that would surely lead to divorce were they confided to their spouses, rather than to a third party whose rush to judgment was not only deemed inconsequential, but often an invitation to keep talking.
“This is where it happened,” Zeke had gestured to the broom closet in the back of his bicycle store, which Mira had entered in search of a bike pump for the boys. “Not just religious. Haredi. From Jerusalem. Eleven kids, one with Tay-Sachs.”
“That explains why she kept her stockings on,” Mira had said.
“Did I tell you she kept her stockings on?”
“To keep up the appearance of modesty.” Zeke closed the door. “I wasn’t looking for it, you know. In the Middle East, it’s important not to upset the status quo. If this frumie broad hadn’t come in on the pretext of purchasing a shifter cable for her husband, you think I would have sought her out in the streets of Me’ah Shearim? Not a chance. Unless it was to run her over. I hate the Haredim and their ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Trust me, I would have ripped those stockings right off her feet if I hadn’t found them so kinky.”
It was easier to attribute people’s weird behavior to an impending war than to try to understand the human psyche, and why people started wars. Mira listened until Zeke grew tired of his own voice, then asked for a discount on the pump, which he happily granted her, before following her out the door in a final attempt to gain her approbation.
“I love my wife very much,” Zeke said. “Let there be no mistake about that.”
“Maybe you should try loving her a little less,” said Mira.
“What good would that do?”
Mira clutched her purchase as if to squeeze an answer out of it. “Further upset the status quo. In order to restore it.”
Shrugging, she thought about her ex-husband, and then her ex-boyfriend, and then about all the strange men who had passed through her house since Gordon and Nadav, the most congenial one missing a leg on account of a rare spider from the farthest reaches of the Black Forest. “Sure,” she said, and shrugged again.
It was only logical that before anyone could die, the landlord would come to collect, and at the most inopportune time, when all three of Mira’s boys had gone out in search of costumes for Purim and returned laden down with untold pounds of detritus, including a mink stole of Russian provenance that evoked no associations for the kids, but for Mira made her first mourn the grandmother she had hardly known, and then calculate the infinite variations of vermin that would be lurking in fur nearly a century old.
A text message preceded Anat by approximately thirty seconds, informing her tenant that she was in the area and would stop by to pick up the as yet unpaid security deposit.
“Come in, come in,” Mira welcomed her landlord, ushering her into the kitchen and straight to the Eden Springs water dispenser.
“Just the deposit,” Anat waved away the gesture while walking toward the sink. “Tell me, what is the point of a dishwasher?” she asked, and led Mira’s eyes to the nearly complete set of Zamir china that, following a recent family meal, had made its way from the table Jonah had been kind enough to clear, and into the sink, where it remained.
Mira was easily intimidated but very admiring of the china, which Avner had brought in from the cold one day and put to immediate use with a bowl of Corn Flakes. A discussion about the dishwasher just didn’t seem right.
“Almost a complete set, vintage, with not a single chip,” she said, trailing her landlord into the living room, past a colorful Sombrero sitting atop several Israel Defense Forces uniforms in need of darning. “Zamir is the Rosenthal of Israel, as I’m sure you know.”
“For my mother, Rosenthal belonged back in the shtetl. Only Augarten entered this home,” Anat informed her tenant as her gaze shifted downward. “What, in God’s name, is going on here?”
With the country on the brink of a battle no one seemed to know the nature of, the question could have meant many things; but as Anat was having trouble putting one foot in front of the other—so forested was the floor with stuff—Mira thought that the most likely referent, and responded accordingly.
“The kids are taking inventory,” she said with just enough pride as to make her wish she had chosen different words.
“My apartment is a warehouse? A place to host the filth and dreck from every street in Tel Aviv?”
“No, no,” Mira assured her landlord. “That’s not how it is. It gives the kids something to do, to bond over. It’s a bonding experience. Together they separate the wheat from the chaff, like the halutzim who founded the country.” She pointed to two piles. “On the left, Castro and American Eagle, and on the right, Zara and Ralph Lauren,” she said, as if introducing additional unwanted people in the room. “Soon I’m going to teach the kids how to make pasta.”
Anat was not appeased. Turning on her heels, she marched straight toward Mira’s bedroom, which, if Mira could have anticipated such a move, would have been barricaded by thick boards and barbed wire.
“And this? Also a bonding experience?”
Together they cocked their heads, like spectators in a museum, toward Mira’s bed, whose broadness, under normal circumstances, would have made for the perfect meeting place at the end of the day, when the kids were asleep and her husband had finished washing the dishes, but which under current circumstances only served to increase Mira’s loneliness tenfold, such that she felt even smaller than usual, and had to suppress an urge to saw the mattress in two to reduce its roominess.
“It’s hard to bond by yourself,” Mira said flatly. Contemplating the two halves of the mattress separated, not by a sharp object, but by a towering border of comfort wear to stop her from rolling over at night and realizing there was no warm body to rub up against, she swallowed back a bitter taste, and stepped away from the threshold.
“You’re behaving like a Holocaust survivor,” Anat said. “Hoarding every scrap. Look at this. With what’s here, you could clothe every Sudanese migrant and his cousin.”
“I lost my anchor,” Mira said, using a Hebrew phrase whose popularity eluded her—the Jews never having been much of a seafaring people, despite the presence of the Jaffa lighthouse on a postage stamp.
“I didn’t tell you who to marry,” said the landlord. “But I can tell you you’ll never find a new husband like this, living with this balagan, like a crazy person. I suggest you waste not another minute, and start therapy.”
“O.K.,” Mira said, her standard response to someone dispensing unsolicited advice.
“Not today, but one day.”
“Why not today?”
“I have a date,” Mira said.
“Very good. Who with?”
“A tool and die maker.”
“I’m not really sure.”
“Well, find out.”
“O.K.,” said Mira.
“Before the date.”
After Anat left, Mira returned to her bedroom and, like a Calcuttan widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, threw herself on the heap of clothing. After a moment, she got up again and went into the bathroom, intending to look in the mirror and evaluate what she saw in its reflection; but rather than her reflection, what she saw was the toothbrush holder next to the sink, a jam jar that had recently held Yad Mordechai apricot preserves, but that now offered up, like a bevy of idols, no fewer than thirteen toothbrushes, the bristles splayed-out in signs of overzealous devotion.
How did this happen? Mira asked herself, staring curiously at the sight before her, at once grateful for the distraction and annoyed at this additional thing in need of evaluation.
How did we—
Why are there thirteen toothbrushes in my bathroom?
And with this, she merrily skipped into the living room.
“Who knows what a tool and die maker is?” she shouted above the din of silent headphones.
Glancing up from their computers just long enough to register a foreign sound in the room, the kids let their mother’s question hang in the air, where it quickly evaporated. For the next hour, Mira took to the La-Z-Boy recliner, straddled atop a clothing mound that rendered her the tallest person in the room by several feet, and lent her an air of unearned royalty. She Googled, then Googled some more, until she became acquainted with over a dozen figures associated with the tool and die making trade, nearly all of them in obituaries, and a few in the form of industrial robots.
Such that she concluded Eshel had to be either be unemployed or dead, neither prospect of which held much appeal. Reluctantly, she set out.
From Modigliani Street to Pinsker, she had to cross Rabin Square, where a Chabad event was underway—“Waiting for Moshiach: Celebrating Faith, Joy and Redemption”—that saw hundreds of dancing men in black gaberdines spilling into the square, and Mira carefully sidestepping them so as not to deter the ushering in of the Messianic age by even a second. She figured they had chosen Rabin Square for the underground parking across the street, which doubled as a bomb shelter, and found it hard to breathe at the thought of being hunkered down with so many happy people when the missiles started to fly, and in the presence of all that polyester. Approaching Dizengoff Street, Mira could see Eshel waiting for her outside Café Nahat, leaning against the building as if holding it in place. She smiled when she saw him, and beneath a scruffy black beard laced with a silver that might have been crafted from his own defunct workshop, he smiled back.
They took a table and sat down, indistinguishable from the other customers but for the absence of a dog by their feet and the occasional child tearing open a sugar packet and pouring its contents down his throat. Mira waited for the banter to begin and for Eshel to initiate, not because that’s how things worked, but because she sensed he had something to say that went beyond banter, and Mira welcomed breaks in protocol wherever they could be found. Nevertheless, as Eshel parted his lips in preparation to speak, she prepared herself to be disappointed, as she so often was when a man she had come to meet could not meet her half way, yapping late into the night like a dog deaf to the whistle summoning him home. The benevolence she perceived on his face she committed to memory, then magnified it so that at home she would be able to call up his image and cast it in her own light, turning the evening’s loss into her gain.
Eshel parted his lips and smiled. He took a sip of coffee.
Mira knew that before the Messiah could come, certain conditions had to be in place, and the natural rhythms of the world disrupted. She had always assumed the disruption would be violent, apocalyptic acts brought on by people invested with the power to destroy themselves, followed by robots turning the human hand into a useless appendage, rendering age-old professions and their concomitant passions obsolete. Then the Messiah would arrive on his donkey to throw open the gates of Paradise, grapes would grow to the size of hen’s eggs, and the dead would rise from their graves to witness the wolf lying with the lamb. Mira didn’t understand what all the fuss was about at Rabin Square, why she should pray for a day when miracles would become the norm, and trees sprout cakes without anyone lifting a finger. If that’s how things were meant to be, and there was nothing left for us to do—no process left to complete—well, she was lazy enough without an intervention to let her sleep even longer in the morning.
She took a sip of coffee, returned Eshel’s smile, stared at his strong, sinewy hands.
Not every story needed telling; why didn’t people realize that? How differently things might have ended with Lior if she had let him sit by that hotel window in Jerusalem at three in the morning, and not asked what he was doing. In a half-sleep, she would have seen him stare out at the walls and spires of the Old City, his unkempt curls a testament to his meditative mind, and agreed that was a good way to live.
“This is my reset time,” he wouldn’t have said. “Every night at 3 A.M. I get up and sit in a chair for half an hour, when the world is asleep. It relaxes me.”
“I like that,” Mira wouldn’t have replied. “To let go of all the things that held onto us during the day.”
Maybe Lior wouldn’t have taken out his phone then, and turned it on.
“When the world is sleeping, I react to it. There’s no better time than 3 A.M. to answer emails, no better feeling than to pick a fight with someone who won’t be able to punch back for at least another five hours.”
At that moment, if only Mira had kept her mouth shut, maybe the toxic light from the screen wouldn’t have taken over the room, and blinded them both.
The disruption came all at once, like a blast of cold air. Instinctively, Mira and Eshel stretched their necks toward the sky, following the sound to its source as if to question the wisdom of its arrival. Mira stood up first, knocking over her coffee. In Eshel’s face she saw fear, then its exact opposite as their eyes met and they ran for cover. Mira led the way, fusing Eshel’s fingers with her own and prying him from the building that had earlier appeared indestructible thanks to his presence beside it.
They had thirty seconds to go subterranean, and Zeke’s store abutted the café, the front of it strewn with spare parts for the taking, alongside spanking new Cannondales for sale that stood little chance of lasting more than twenty-four hours in anyone’s possession, such was the thieving spirit of an otherwise splendid city. Mira pulled Eshel inside and charged through the store as if in search of something she knew was not there, and then of something that was. Skirting past the staircase leading to the basement and people tumbling down it, she headed to the broom closet in back, flung open its door, and waited for Eshel to squeeze in next to her.
What, exactly, was she thinking? That they would be safe among someone else’s skeletons? That she could transmute the image of the frumie broad’s noxious stockings into a colorful silk scarf? Zeke’s mindless thrusting into a meaningful embrace with a man she had never exchanged a word with? That they would wait for the Iron Dome to intercept the incoming missile, listen for the boom, then return to the café just as they had left it, to float forever on the warm sea of their silence?
Yes, more or less. That’s what Mira would have liked, was pretty sure she even deserved, having paid her dues not only to the landlord, but to all the men she had offered her ear to since her separation, waiting patiently for (soliciting?) the one word too many that would make them self-destruct, allowing her to go home and get some sleep. Lior had almost been right about the reset, his impulse to engage the world when it was unconscious. As is, there was often no difference between talking to someone inches away—even shouting in his ear—and anticipating their reaction to something said, but not yet heard: an email launched into the stratosphere like a rocket announcing war.
And after the ceasefire, the sentence Avner’s English teacher wrote on the board, and asked the class to correct—If you will not shave this rabbit, he will get stoned—would it be any easier to understand?
In the meantime, there was this: Eshel and Mira interlocked, arms alternately opening and closing to adjust for temperature, space, and hunger, like two parts of a machine whose sole purpose is to keep on going.