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‘What if we pretended he was here?’ Daniel asked her. ‘And just talked to him. Like it used to be.’
Ella shook her head.
It was not an entirely uncommon thing to be killed in combat. In the back of his mind, Daniel knew it could happen, it was always a possibility. Not to me, he always thought. It could happen to someone else, but not to me. Not to someone I know, not to my brother.
Daniel had been excused from combat duty. It was almost poetic to be excused for being a sleepwalker. Sleepwalkers inhabited another world entirely, of shadows and confusion, of locked doors and barred windows and hidden keys. It was funny that he felt now more like a sleepwalker than he ever did. He now inhabited this half-world. He felt only half himself. His other half he left behind long ago.
His day was structured and that was how he did not think. He brushed his teeth, he went to work, he ate dinner by himself, he watched a late night talk show and he went to bed. And then his day started over again. He did not dread the monotony of it. He was thrilled that his life had taken shape, and that he did not spend every second of it thinking of his brother and what his life could have been like.
He studied Arabic in school but was never good enough to make it into Intelligence. His military service he spent in an office. He filed reports. He scheduled appointments. He made coffee for his commanding officer Moshe.
Moshe was usually referred to as Moshe and a Half because he was so tall. A mountain of a man, but a gentle soul. He understood. Moshe could not fight because he was allergic to gluten. Following a strange diet of only orange fruit and vegetables, he somehow managed to grow into the tallest man on base.
What Daniel remembered most about his time in the army was the boredom. The boredom and the dust. Somehow they went together in his mind. As if his time spent in the army was a long stretch of sand. Before Ben died, Daniel would still sleepwalk. Once, when he had guard duty, he fell asleep in his vest and helmet. They did not let him carry a gun because of his tendency to walk in his sleep. Moshe and a Half saw him patrolling the sand. The next day he told Daniel that he walked in a funny way, as if he were an astronaut on an unfamiliarplanet.
Like all the boys in his class, Ben wanted to be a pilot. Everyone thought he was going to be one too. Top of his class, majored in physics, strong and athletic. He could do anything he put his mind to. The problem came much later when he went in for army checkups. They held up a card for him, that in green and red dots spelled the number 67. He saw only one shade. He could not be a pilot so he became a fighter on the ground.
The summer the Second Lebanon war broke out, Ben had only one month to go until his discharge. Daniel, exactly a year younger, came home from the base every night. He served close by. He was at home that night they fired rockets and ambushed the Humvees. They all watched the news together and he remembered more than anything his mother’s knuckles gripping the sofa cushion. Her face crushed by the news. The vein on the side of her face popping up, the one she inherited from her father. The one which Daniel saw only once or twice in his life. The vein which revealed itself when she told him that his grandfather had cancer. The same vein that appeared when her best friend from high school suddenly died in a car accident. Now, he saw it clearly against her white skin. Now, this vein was meant for his brother. His brother who was fighting in Lebanon.
Daniel and his parents were driving in the car with the radio on. The only time they ever listened to the news was in the car. The backseat next to Daniel, where Ben used to sit, was empty. It was the last day of the War. They heard that David Grossman’s son Uri had been killed in combat, only days after his father, the writer, the activist, had come up on stage to denounce the war and to call for a ceasefire. Grossman the prophet. Grossman who was half-way through writing To The End of The Land about a mother unwilling to accept her son’s death in combat.
It was when they heard that Uri had died that Daniel’s father had broken down. They’d stopped the car at a gas station, and he had fled to the bathroom. Daniel had never seen his father cry. Not at the funeral. Not at the shivah, surrounded by friends and family. His father who dealt in abstractions. His father the university professor, who was calm and exact in all he did. His father who had accepted his son’s death only in an abstract way. Only when he saw that a fellow intellectual, a writer whom he held in the highest esteem, had lost his son as well did he break down.
Ella came to the funeral and stayed with Daniel in the shivah all week long. She always set up the cakes in the fridge. Made room for the salty spinach kisch and the pasta that people brought with them. She would find a place for everyone to sit, and would know exactly when to leave Daniel alone, and when to come and talk to him. She was finishing high school that year.
It was on the fourth day of the shivah that Ella lost control. It was when a distant cousin, Shlomo, came to pay his respects. Shlomo had grown very religious these past few years. Ella overheard him talking to Daniel’s parents and asking them why they did not sing “El Malee Rachamim”, or “Merciful God” when the body was put into the earth. Daniel’s parents, who observed holidays mostly for cultural reasons, were atheists and they looked at the floor tiles. Ella never said anything, but her face turned very red. Daniel saw her standing in the hallway with her back to everyone, clenching her fists, cursing Shlomo and his God under her breath.
Daniel was sitting in his brother’s old room when she knocked quietly on the door and came in. She didn’t say anything. She just sat next to him, her hand rubbing his back, her cheek resting on his shoulder. He turned to her, and she looked at him with that girl’s look, the unwavering one he knew so well. She was his brother’s girlfriend and she always would be, even after he was dead.
They would kiss only once. Years later. They were both students. She was studying art at Bezalel. He was studying literature at The Hebrew University. They had both been living in the same city for over a year now, yet had never met up. It was only when he got a call from Moshe and a Half, who after more than seven years in the army had quit and gone off to pursue his dream of being an art curator, that Daniel saw her.
They both hugged and screamed as one does when seeing an old childhood friend after a long time, yet their eyes did not shine. In between them was a wall that could not be taken down. In this new city, away from old friends and family members and neighbours, this wall was a secret only they shared, like some strange nickname they were no longer called by.
She offered to get them both drinks. They sipped wine out of plastic cups. He asked Moshe if the place had a roof, and Moshe told them to take the staircase on their right, outside the apartment, and that the door was slightly jammed, and required a hard tug.
They made their way to the roof with their drinks, searching for a little privacy. He was behind her, as always. Ever since they were kids, she led the way. She stumbled on the last few steps, spilling her drink. The grey stairs now had a birthmark, a dark blood-colored stain.
They sat with their feet out over the night sky. He finished his drink. From her purse she withdrew another bottle. Arak this time.
‘I got it from Moshe and a Half’s cabinet. Don’t say anything.’
Daniel laughed. ‘It’s not orange. I don’t think he’ll miss it.’
Ella filled up their glasses and took a little sip, her lips redder than ever from the wine. He was surprised to find her tan, living in Jerusalem.
‘Are you sure that you’re an art student in Jerusalem?’ he asked her.
‘You’re so tan. And happy.’
She giggled and put her hand over his.
He rested his forehead on hers. He could smell her breath and feel warm air against his skin. In. Out. In. Out. Her breath soothed him. She was always a loud breather. Through your nose not your mouth, her mother would say. He came even closer. His nose grazed hers. She smiled at him with her knowing eyes. They stayed that way for a long time, holding each other. Then their lips met. It was the softest kiss imaginable. Soft and gentle. They were afraid to do anything else.
They lay back and gazed at the night which looked so complete.
‘Why can’t we be a little more like that?’ He said. Like the night, he meant. Why can’t they ever feel whole? There was always something missing. Even now, years later, after he had finally kissed her.
She stayed silent. He wondered what she thought he meant. A little more like what she had with Ben, he thought.
‘I’m cold,’ she said. ‘Let’s go back down.’
And they did. Not touching this time. She did not trip. She was steady on the stairs, and after a few minutes she said goodnight to everyone, and waved at Daniel as she walked out.
When the party was over Moshe and a Half clapped Daniel on the back.
‘Thanks for coming, man.’
‘It was great to see you.’
‘So how are you?’
They had not seen each other since the funeral. After Ben’s death, Daniel had gone to see an army psychologist: he had explained the situation carefully, and he had been discharged. They were afraid of a suicide, and didn’t put up much of a fight. Besides, it was not like he was indispensable. Anyone can make coffee. Moshe and a Half had come to the funeral. He said everyone missed him at the base, and that no one cared whether he served or not. They all understood. It made Daniel feel a little better, although he knew that was only what Moshe and a Half thought.
‘Fine,’ he answered simply, unable to explain all that he was feeling to the giant beside him.
‘Ella left her number with me to give you.’
Years later, Daniel watched Ella slip off her shoes and heard the wet slapping sound as her feet touched the muddy ground and went up again. He followed more slowly, like he always had, even when they were children.
It was a long way up. The stairs led up to the water tower’s rim, where one could stand on a roof of concrete looking out to a view of the whole city. She slid on her belly while he held the fence up for her. When it was his turn to climb under, he pushed himself forward with his hands, and underestimating the fence’s height, scratched himself in the tight wriggle through. As children, they had done this before many times.
It was hard not to notice, as she moved up ahead of him, the contours of her underwear that grew more defined as she sweated through her tight shorts. Her hair had grown darker, and she cut it a little shorter nowadays; it reached her shoulders.
When they got to the top, he was perspiring through his shirt.
‘This never used to happen when we were little.’
She touched his chest which, soaked through, resembled a Rorschach ink blot.
A tiny bead of sweat lingered on her hairline before slowly sliding to her chin and dropping down on to the concrete.
‘Do you think about him a lot?’ she asked, looking him steadily in the eye, and it was then that he saw the girl she used to be.
‘Every day,’ he said. ‘Less like a brother though and more like a friend I’ve lost touch with.’
He sat down on the concrete and his legs swayed out across the darkness. After a second or two she sat down next to him, her shoulder grazing his, but so minimally that he did not know if it was intentional or not. He wondered if she was thinking about their kiss, that one time when they were students, when Ben was already dead.
‘What was he like? With you, I mean. As a boyfriend.’
She laughed a sad kind of laugh.
‘He was very funny. And kind. He never took anything seriously, except when I was upset of course, then he would take me very seriously. Sometimes I would pretend to be upset at something just because I liked it that he cared so much. I think he knew and played along.’
Daniel listened to the rise and fall of her voice and it reminded him of the rhythm of the sea.
The water tower became a tradition. After that one night they began meeting at the water tower even when they had no dinners with his parents. They would climb its steps, each time sweating a little more, each time aching in different, unknown places that you start to discover when you get old. They both never married. Ella had a beautiful little girl called Noa from a previous boyfriend who was no longer around. Daniel would sometimes bring things for her. Toys or stuffed animals. Once, he got her a model airplane.
He remembered the first time he had climbed up on the water tower. Ben and Ella would do it all the time and once they’d brought him along. Ella was short and her hair was long and blonde at the tips from the sun. At fourteen, her breasts were small and round. His brother told him that they were the most perfect breasts he had ever seen. They would talk about things like that. He had a strange thought then; that his brother Ben had only ever really seen one pair of breasts in his life, Ella’s.
After they had particular difficulty climbing one night, and they were catching their breath on the top, he told her about his thought, that his brother had only really seen her breasts and not any other girl’s. For some reason, more than anything, this touched her. Her voice was slightly lower when she spoke next, and she did not look him in the eye.
‘Would you like to see them?’
And so his childhood friend, his sister, and his brother’s lover moved her hands up to the topmost button. And slowly, with older hands, she began unbuttoning her shirt.