Besieged – a short story by Miryam Sivan

Miryam is from New York City, and now lives in the Galilee. She teaches writing and literature at the University of Haifa. Several of Miryam’s short stories have appeared in Lilith, Arts and Letters, and Wasafiri. She has completed a novel, Concrete.

This piece was originally published in Lovers: Stories by Women in 1992 and in 2010, it was dramatized by the playwright and director Barbara Khan in the Lower East Sides Arts Festival in New York. It’s good to have it here – 2011 marks 20 years since the end of the Gulf War, when this story is set. Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait and was threatening to go into Saudi Arabia as well. The US and around 30 other countries landed troops in the Gulf; when they went into Kuwait to push the Iraqis out, Saddam Hussein made good on his threat and starting pounding the troops there and in Israel with Scud missiles. People were afraid that chemical weapons might be contained in some of the Scud missile heads coming from Iraq. So that’s the background – here’s the story – enjoy!

Besieged

The sirens are sounding. Everyone is running. The longer she waits for him, the more she endangers herself. She is standing by the old movie house on Allenby Street and the sirens are screaming death is coming. The night before a Scud fell and destroyed homes less than a mile away. What about Molly and Shira, her daughters, and Ezra, her husband? Everyone around her is running. She should run to a sealed room. She should belt the ugly porcine mask around her face and prepare for the gas. But she doesn’t. She stays on that corner, as if there is no danger, no crisis, ready to absorb violence, even death, she thinks, just to be with him one more time.

The sirens keep sounding. Two streets away the sea is licking the shore like a fat cat in a butcher shop. Cars are nearly flying. Will she able to describe to her daughters the thrill of touching death’s approach without fear? They would not understand. How could they? They will be frightened: she (willingly) jeopardized her life and theirs. Were she to die, killed by a collapsed building or by debris from the sky following an American Patriot’s impact on an Iraqi Scud, were she to become newsprint, they would forever ask themselves, why didn’t she protect herself and what was she really doing on that corner? But she and he have always met in Tel Aviv and neither mentioned meeting somewhere else when America’s war with Iraq began. In this congested metropolis, they experience equity. Here they can get lost together. Guilt for her children’s loss grows as the seconds pass.

Nadav is divorced and his children live with their mother on a kibbutz in the Beit She’an Valley. Were he not meeting her, he would be studying for his classes at the Technion. Were she not married, she could be with him in his small apartment while he studied, or in the courtyard surrounded by a wall with blue tile and olive trees.

But the fact is they are meeting one another, and even though the highway is practically empty, he is half an hour late. Even on ordinary days, when the traffic from Nadav’s village north of Haifa moves freely, he is sometimes late. Like when they met. He had come to interview her for his school newspaper. He was expected at noon but showed up at six in the evening. She asked him why he had not called – his delay had interrupted her work schedule. He did not have a good answer, and hung his head like a scolded schoolboy. She laughed at that and then he asked her to tell him about the differences in light.

They walked outside her studio, a converted chicken coop, and around to where they could see the Judean hills and the remaining daylight. She said light fades by the coast and disappears in the mountains. She said space and light are married. Light is the source of everything and space the vessel which molds it. They returned to the studio and he stayed for some wine. When asked, she showed him some of her recent canvases. Nadav wanted to know why she used so many bruise colors. His question was like a dare. A probe. And while she quickly searched for an answer, she felt the stirrings of a sensual curiosity. It startled her, because of its clarity and its surprise. In twelve years of marriage she had never felt the stirring of the sensual outside of her daughters, her painting and Ezra. It excited her. It frightened her. When she drove him to the bus station, he told her he had just come back from reserve duty in Lebanon. She calculated he was ten years her junior. A week later he called and asked if she would like to see a copy of the article. She said yes and then he sent her a number of funny notes to the studio and when she went to visit a friend in Haifa two months later she called him and they had dinner. A day later he called and asked her to meet him in Tel Aviv at the Hotel Barcelona. That was six months ago.

As the sirens press on, she begins to inventory those others beloved to her. Shira and Molly, seven and ten years old, are in school. Right now they are being shepherded into the classroom at the end of the hall whose windows are covered with plastic and where books have made room on the shelves for cans of food and boxes of powdered milk. They are with many responsible adults. As this moment, Ezra is in his spartan office in a municipal building, looking over an American company’s joint venture proposal to manufacture light bulbs in a desert development town. Like her, he is reluctant to shroud himself in a sealed room, but not because he is unafraid of death. He is not sharing her almost transcendent moment of freedom. Ezra is terrified. She can easily picture him sitting at his desk holding papers firmly in a hand trying to steady itself. He stares at the hand and is defiant. Not of death, but of the gas. Two weeks earlier he put his concentration camp surviving parents on a plane to Eilat and the threat of gas out of his mind.

Her parents are in the sealed room of their Jerusalem apartment. Twenty years in Israel, they have learned to remain calm in crises and are probably watching the news and eating her mother’s freshly baked chocolate cake. They have each gained three kilos since the start of the war.

And when in turn each family member does her and his own accounting and asks where she is, it will be noted that she is in her studio in the hills south of Jerusalem, working long hours to complete a series of canvases she intends to take with her to New York. Her annual pilgrimage to the money mecca is only two weeks away. And since she has prepared a ‘sealed room’ in the low dark shed where extra supplies are kept, she is most likely to be in that dark shed now, reading the morning’s paper with a candle or flashlight.

She has been so busy preparing for this year’s trip to New York and now on top of everything, the war, that what little time she had to spare, precious time to see him, has been eclipsed. Twice she cancelled and once she simply didn’t show up. This afternoon is to be the first time in a month they will be together. Everything in her bursting life is organized. She is determined to exercise some control, at least for one afternoon. To hell with the missiles.

A policeman runs past her and tells her to seek shelter. She hesitates. She cannot give up just yet. The sirens whip around her and she pushes back against them. They taunt her with her recklessness, her compromising desire. The wail pulls harder at her, like a troubled prayer, and she thinks of her daughters’ slender limbs and her husband’s strong voice and decides she has waited long enough.

“Ilana,” Nadav calls her by her name, grabs her by the shoulders, and they run together as if by instinct. The sirens flail through the empty streets like Lilith seeking retribution. The streets have become wind tunnels of horror.

Nadav and Ilana spin and fall into the doorway of an old house. She wants to put the gas mask on. She wants his face buttoned to hers. He presses his mouth down on her, hard, his teeth grind against her lips. She and he fill a doorway with too much light, and it is still not enough.

He pushes her up against the stone wall. He stares into her eyes, daring her to speak, daring her to protest, while his hand moves through her skirt and cups her between the legs. His thumb jabs into her clitoris. It is okay that it hurts a little. They lean into one another, swaying like the piercing siren, buckling into a reprieve. He reaches under her skirt and thrusts his index finger into her. She can feel she is burning inside through his finger and catches herself before she falls. She opens his pants and takes out his erect penis, and she doesn’t rub it, she doesn’t move her hand, she just holds him firmly, and closes her eyes. He sucks on her lip and she says Nadav over and over and cries when the missile strikes, not far away, loud and compact.

They remain folded into the doorway until people begin to emerge, having listened for the all clear message on the radio. Ambulances take up the wail just as the air sirens die down. Again, everyone is running. Blue lights whip around wildly in police cars. The red lights of medical teams follow. And passenger vehicles of the Civil Defense take up the rear. Ilana holds Nadav to her. When a young man wearing a day glow orange civil defense vest stops and asks them if they are okay, Ilana hides her face in Nadav’s chest, and listens to his heart beating loudly when he says they are catching their breath.

More than ever, as the area is flooded with residents and then journalists, Ilana wishes to disappear. She wants to ask someone if Jerusalem’s been hit. For a moment, she is afraid. Ilana and Nadav run four blocks to the Hotel Barcelona. In the lobby, all the employees and guests are huddled around the television set. A foreign news correspondent broadcasts from his sealed room in a Jerusalem hotel. With the gas mask on it is difficult to understand what he is saying. He is interrupted by an Israeli anchor who says houses in the Ramat Gan area have been hit and one Scud overshot Tel Aviv.

Ilana feels unburdened. She and her family are safe. Nadav takes her hand and they walk up two flights to their room. It is painted light blue and has a small balcony looking out over the Mediterranean.

*

“Ilana.” Nadav stretches out on the bed beside her.
“I have a surprise, Ilana.” He holds a bottle of Russian vodka over her head. “A very special, perfect surprise.” He rolls the bottle down her back and props it between her thighs. It is still cold from the freezer.
“Is it open?” she asks.
“It’s been opened.”
Nadav lifts the bottle high enough for Ilana to roll on to her back and she grabs and drinks from it.
“I want to call.” She shoves the bottle away from her.
“Who?” he asks.
“Ezra.” She falls back on the soft bed and stares at the plaster patches on the ceiling.
“No, it’s not necessary. You heard already. Jerusalem’s safe.”

Ilana rolls off the bed and walks outside to the balcony. By now her children have returned to their classrooms where they will spend the rest of the afternoon decorating their gas mask boxes. Last night Shira cut out images and shapes from old art magazines. And Molly asked if she should use the watercolor or gouache to paint her cardboard box. Ilana said the watercolor would be easier and asked her what she wanted to draw. Molly said many of the kids were drawing missiles and ugly portraits of Saddam Hussein. But she wanted something beautiful, even glorious, on her box. She wanted to show a little girl sitting in a field of flowers, waving to her mother and father and younger sister who were walking towards her. She wanted a lot of colors and butterflies and a hot sun. Later in bed Ezra asked Ilana how someone draws a hot sun and Ilana drew a circle around his penis with her tongue.

Ilana watches the soft waves console the land, as they have through millennia of invasions. She sees herself dive into them and emerge, dive into them and emerge, like a thread basting two pieces of material together. She imagines Ezra in his office. His hand has not stopped shaking, his rage at the man who boasted he would turn Tel Aviv into a crematorium, has not died out. It has not yet fully surfaced.

“Ilana,” Nadav calls her. “Come here, sweetheart.”
His voice corrals her. She steps back from the balcony and resists him, just for a moment more. She sees herself dive and emerge one more time and the garment being created is made up of one half her and the other half Ezra.
“Ilana,” Nadav croons to her.

She used to share everything with Ezra. But over time, less and less. Now they mostly speak about the practical details of their lives: their growing daughters, their aging parents, the outstanding bills, politics, where to go in the summer, what to have for dinner.

“Ilana.” Nadav knows that at least for the time being nothing is more attractive to her than his insistence, his urgency to touch her. What she once had with Ezra. A primitive, almost carnivorous sensuality. When they were naked together she would feel most alive, all fractures of her self integrated, like colors into white. And then out of this implosion, Molly, and then Shira.

“Ilana,” Nadav sings to her like Solomon to Shulamith, and as Ilana backs away from the sea, she closes the curtain on one world and dramatically pulls it open to reveal another.
“Sweetheart.” Ilana falls on top of Nadav’s naked body and sucks his nipples. She licks his inner thighs and the soft skin behind his knees.

He undresses her quickly, with little grace, and twists around to mount her from behind. And then he waits. And she waits, impatiently. He wants her to want him more than she already does. He wants to obliterate her daughters, her husband, her studio and canvases, her trip to New York. He wants her to think of nothing but him. She is restless. He waits some more. His hand is pinching her nipple, it is stroking her breasts, soft and thin from nursing her daughters.

She thinks she’s never wanted any man as much as she wants him. On good days, she thanks the stars that when Nadav came to interview her, she was feeling unusually lonely. Ezra kept himself busy shaping the dream of Israel: meeting with foreign businessmen, going out with political dignitaries, conjuring up profitable schemes. She suggested a trip to Italy. Ezra responded diplomatically. He agreed enthusiastically and then could not find time to make the plans. She suggested he surprise her in the studio one afternoon. He said he would love to and never came. She had been replaced in his passion by his entrepreneurial ambitions, and not being able to compete, she withdrew. By the time Ilana met Nadav for the first time in this Tel Aviv hotel room, she have given up any hope of resurrecting the aura of sexual anarchy in her marriage. There were too many lists, too many details, too much safety between her and Ezra.

On bad days, she feels intrinsically flawed to be able to so easily love more than one man. She sits on the cold stone floor in her studio pounding her fists against her thighs. She wants to protect her marriage and still spends hours in front of a canvas, on the bus, while cooking, picturing Nadav: the way he hunches over his clipboard when he scribbles notes to himself; the way he gently lays his large callused hand on the small of her back; his spicy smell; the peace he brings to the frenetic space inside her when she is with him. And in the end she is left with the unfinished canvases for the New York show, the horrors of duplicity, and an aggravated ache for the safety and the rapture.

A man is screaming on the street to his wife to bring the children into the house. The air is suddenly heavy. Suddenly quiet. Ilana lifts her head to listen. Air raid sirens crash into the silence beating out their war cries. Scud missiles are on their way to Israel from western Iraq. Nadav is still. He does not let go of her. Ilana lowers her head to the bed. Again, chaos breaks loose on the streets. People are running. Cars are almost flying along the beach. She closes her eyes and sees Shira and Molly being shepherded back into a sealed room, taking with them their half decorated gas mask boxes. She sees her parents watching the world watch them on live broadcast, a bowl of sunflower seeds between them. She sees Ezra running to the window, his fists clenched, crying out in frustration. He is helpless to protect what he knows as his. A dog is barking down by the waters. Sirens rock the country. Danger reeks. Everyone is waiting.

Ilana reaches between her legs and guides Nadav into her. They surge one against the other, until there is no other, and first she and then he survive their own little deaths.

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