In Heart and in Arms
Dael Rodrigues Garcia
Translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
We were post-army. Or post-army age. Neither of us had served, each on account of his own screw ups. But we didn’t care. We figured it might as well be like that. Back in those days, though, we needed money. I had a car and Roee had a girlfriend. And everyone, no matter what, needs some money. But since we didn’t know how to hold down jobs, we had a different gig.
Sunday mornings, Beersheva’s Central Bus Station: the place’s packed with soldiers, the giant blobs of green swallowing the specks of civilian gray. Soldiers coming from everywhere, standing around with towering duffels on their backs, sitting on the floors, clustered in packs, blocking the walkways, chowing down on shwarma sandwiches at nine in the morning as though it’s two in the afternoon. Some of them would force themselves to laugh, others would sit in silence as if waiting for a verdict. I always took a spot near the cement platforms, dressed all plain and inconspicuous: pale jeans, dark V-neck t-shirt. I’d smoke along with everyone else in the desert’s cool morning air and angle for a spot near the bus door. On Sunday mornings, if you don’t push, elbows and all, you don’t get on. And usually you’ve got to stuff your duffel underneath the bus, too, so what you need is one guy to load and the other to save you a spot on line at the door. Or you just chuck your bag in the luggage hold and race back to the line, since it’s damn near impossible to save someone a spot.
Most of the soldiers, at this hour of the morning, were still swimming in their own heads, hidden behind giant noise-cancelling headphones. Especially the non-combat ones with their puffy jackets, and the girls with their brown sweaters that never fit. The combat soldiers stand right where the bus stops, oblivious to the danger. Even on the coldest mornings they’re in shirtsleeves, rolled up over the elbow. Each time a buddy shows up, they call out to him, make gestures, make space, toss his bag loudly into the mix, and then hug him, one after another, tight and brief. They spar as though warming up for a fight, then they fix each other’s berets and insignias, and puff out their chests.
I’d stand on the concrete, leaning against the dark glass partition, close enough to where the bus is supposed to pull in. I’d check my watch every few seconds and suck down at least two cigarettes before Roee would finally show. I was sick of telling him to get to the station on time, and the truth is, he was basically right, it didn’t matter—in the end, he always managed to squeeze on. It was easier for us. We didn’t have duffels. Roee would show up in his brother’s old uniform. It was a little too baggy and a little too faded; his big brother, by then, had been out of the army for five years, but it always got the job done. We were still missing a beret, but Roee always said it didn’t matter and I checked online and saw that they sold them at those hiking and traveling stores.
When Roee would finally show, I’d just flash him a quick wink. Nothing more. Then we’d board the bus separately and sit apart. Usually the 59 to the cadet base. Roee would get off at the second stop along with some of the soldiers. Beyond the stop was the gate to a training base. He made it look like he was being tugged down the aisle: boots clomping down the backdoor steps, lingering before grabbing his bag. Once the soldiers had found their duffels, he’d choose a random one from the hold and hoist it up like it wasn’t a big deal, produce a real yawn, fake a despairing look at the gates to the base. From there he’d drift to the bus stop, where he mingled with the soldiers heading home or to medical appointments. Usually he’d wait there for around ten minutes. I’d get off at the cadet base, walk quickly to a banged-up white Fiat, start it up, flip on the music, and circle back. Roee always said it was important that I be on the bus, too, so that if something went wrong, I’d have his back, and anyway that’s how all serious operations work. The return trip was done in silence as though someone was listening in on us from the trunk. Roee would tap the dashboard, keeping the beat, and I’d drive more carefully than usual. Only once we made it back to the storeroom did we open the bag, and laugh and talk and talk. That’s how it went every Sunday, for nearly three months.
The storeroom was actually Roee’s room. A small room with no windows and just enough space for a fridge and a bed. We’d once painted the walls orange but the paint had since peeled, revealing big patches of gray. We called it the storeroom, because when we were kids that’s what it was. Then Roee’s grandmother moved in and his family turned the storeroom into a bedroom for him. The grandmother had since died, but Roee was still in the storeroom. How’d his father put it? Suits him and suits us. Every once in a while, Roee would head up to the house for some home-cooked food and some laundry, but aside from that he didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother him. We’d spent our teen years down in that storeroom. Cranking rock and playing PlayStation and rounds of cards. Writing imaginary love songs on the walls. Smoking the Pall Malls that Roee stole from his dad. Sucking down a pack in one session, so that you could practically choke on the secondhand smoke. Days on end we just charred ourselves in that place. Now, when I think about it, I can’t see how the two of us managed to fit in there on two small mattresses. As though we were still little kids with small flexible bodies, but we weren’t. There was no reception in there and no one heard a thing from the outside. No one knew where we were and no one cared.
When this started was when Sivan started frequenting the storeroom. Roee was crazy for Sivan, and going crazy because of her. For three years they were on and off. It’ll end soon, I told myself. And I told myself that for three full years. Till I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t figure out what he saw in her. For the first three years of high school, he said she was ugly. Then he said he was bored without a girlfriend, and then, after a month together, he said, you know what, man, having a girlfriend is crazy boring. I told him I was sick of his flip-flopping. Roee laughed at me and told me to cut it out. And I thought: he doesn’t really know me. I thought that and swallowed the saliva in my dry throat, because Roee and I were friends from way back, from before we were born. We’d been through it all together. Every rough patch we’d ever hit, we’d made it through together. And Roee always had these brilliant ideas and I always made them into reality, formed them to fit the shape of what he was thinking. But around then, I was at a point where I was hardly sleeping in the storeroom, because Sivan was hardly sleeping anywhere else, and Roee and I were not like we once were.
Sivan didn’t know about Sundays. She wasn’t even around on Sundays. She was in the city working her first shift of the week. Sundays were ours. We’d sit down on the bed with the duffel between us. Roee would say “two, three and…”and we’d pull the zippers at the same time. Each from his side, opening it like a present. We’d sit there for a second in silence, looking in on the exposed crater, its teeming insides. Then we’d set everything out on the floor. Socks, underwear, undershirts, shoes, toothbrushes, everything. Like an army inspection. If there was food, Roee’d crack it open and start eating right away. Sometimes there was a bottle of backwash-y Coke. If we found books, I shoved them under the bed. Sometimes there’d be a fancy flashlight or a compass or a pocketknife; once there was even a laptop. Roee always found a way to sell the stuff to his friends or just random people. Only rarely was there a wallet with cash and credit cards and other important stuff. They kept that in their pockets. Roee would say that soldiers don’t ever carry things that are actually valuable, but we tried this on civilians on and it didn’t really work. Soldiers are easy. They all carry the same sort of duffel. And besides, it seemed like Roee enjoyed taking revenge on soldiers, ever since he’d been booted out of the army. He’d say that the army is the least humane place in the country, and that you’re nothing but a number in there. And then he’d say: “personal ID number,” and ask how the hell can a number be personal? And then he’d read off the soldier’s personal number from some corner of the bag. And then he’d say his full name in a loud and formal voice as if it was some sort of ceremony: Guy Azulaiy, personal number: 9827767. And I’d say with a gleam in my eyes, definitely a paratrooper, and Roee would say, no way, what sort of paratrooper are you talking about? This guy’s Golani, and then I’d add, Golani Recon in that case, cuz look at the multi-tool he’s got. Roee would examine the bag and say, who buys this kind of thermal underwear? His mother must’ve gotten it for him. From the north for sure, something like Kiryat Shmona or something. Left home at like three in the morning, dead-ass tired, and by the time he realized he had no duffel he was halfway done with his service. That’s how it was. I’d grab the guy’s socks and inhale, rich people’s detergent, I’d say. No doubt: an only child, spoiled rotten. And Roee would get pissed off—what do you mean only child, don’t you know only children don’t go to combat units? So maybe he’s rear-echelon after all? What sort of rear echelon are you talking about? You just said he was recon. He’s a rear-echelon soldier in the recon unit, I’d say in a whisper. And then I’d close my eyes and say: he’s got green eyes, good looking sort of guy, all the female officers are crazy about him, but you know what, he’s never going to get sent to officers’ school. You know why not? Because he’s got this dream to start his own carpentry studio once he’s done with his service, to work with his hands and finally move out of his parents’ house. Even though he’s an only child. And then I’d pull out his deodorant, spray it once toward the ceiling, and say, with my eyes still shut, seems to like a citrus scent. Reminds him of his grandfather’s house, in Hadera, where the old man worked his orange orchards near the coast and died not long ago. If there was a book in the bag, it was a lot easier. I’d take it out from under the bed and then read from the back cover in a radiophonic voice and add: this book suits the young man for whom the rigors of Basic Training are trying. And one night, in the midst of his guard duty shift, this soldier is suddenly stricken with longing for home, for his room, his father, his mother. And without anyone noticing, under the soft light of the moon, he pulls the book out of his battle vest and stealthily reads a few lines. And he sets sail on the sea of plot, tracing the fascinating life of the hero of this story, who lived many centuries ago, yet whose reasoning is like his reasoning and whose heart is like his heart, and in this way our soldier’s woe is forgotten for some time. And if I stopped, Roee would say to me, half-asleep, keep going, keep going, what did you stop for, it’s relaxing. Under the bed we had a bit of a library. Four copies of Islands in the Stream and three of Fields of Fire, both of which are given out by the Education Corps at the end of Basic Training and they were all new and shiny. It would take us the better part of an hour to unpack the bag and then I’d throw the duffel away in one of the big municipal garbage dumpsters and the two of us would go to sleep till the evening or Roee would fall asleep and I’d watch a movie or some soccer replays. Every now and again the storeroom would get filled with clothes and we’d have to toss them. We’d stuff them into a big garbage bag, except for the fancy thermal layers, and I’d toss it all into the trash. And when we saw someone ripping open a bag and hunting through it, we started just taking all the leftovers out to the dump and setting it on fire. Twice it turned out that we took girl soldiers’ duffels and when that happened Roee took the underwear and the bras and fondled them and examined them from all angles and then stuffed whatever he liked under his pillow and said, this I’m going to give to Sivan, I think it’s her size. It seemed like a really idiotic thing to do and if he really wanted to get her something for her, I figured, he should buy it, as he was always penny-pinching when it came to her, but I didn’t say a thing. I thought about the girl soldier and how the sweater she wore hardly kept her warm and how if she wore a rifle across her shoulders then the strap was probably already cutting into her skin and leaving little red marks and then wondered who the hell even gives guns to girls.
On this specific Sunday I was dead tired. Hadn’t slept the entire night. I took a seat somewhere near the middle of the bus and fell asleep with my head against the window. Roee stood in the aisle. My head kept bumping against the glass and so I woke up every minute and then dropped back into sleep. When Roee got off, I was sleeping. I didn’t see him walk his sleepy walk, sit down on the long green duffel, and wait at the foot of the bus stop. All of the soldiers lift their bags in the same way, with a jerk upwards and then onto their shoulders in a single motion. They bear the burden, awaken the fortitude of their spines. Press the weekend at home close against their backs and tighten the straps. Walk slowly into the base.
I woke up before my stop. Got off last, dawdled for a while, talked to the driver about the upcoming soccer derby, and headed for the car. Before I made it there, I heard a scream. And then I saw him. Close-cropped black hair, nerves bulging at his temples. A bit short, with a wide and hardly visible neck. He was red in the face and yelling at the driver. Someone took my bag! I wanted to turn around and get in the car but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He looked both threatening and helpless at once. He bellowed: driverrrrrr, my rifle’s in that bag! Someone stole my rifle! His voice was high and thin, unlike his body. I had the urge to laugh but held myself back. Some of the soldiers grabbed their bags and stood by uncomfortably and some just shouldered their duffels and carried on. A blonde officer who looked like a giant baby chick hopped on after the soldier and talked to the driver. Someone else, probably the guy’s buddy, called their officer and mumbled something. I started walking fast toward the car, and when I realized I was rushing, I stopped and scratched my leg.
I tried calling Roee the whole way back but either he had no reception or he just wasn’t answering. When I showed up, he tossed himself and the duffel into the car and said what’s up with you, took you ages. I wanted to yell at him like the stout little soldier but was scared my voice would squeak. And anyway, I never said anything till we made it back to the neighborhood. Roee, it’s all you today, good luck, I said, as we crossed through the broken yellow gate at the entrance. But in the end, I went with him to the storeroom and we opened the bag together, each from his side.
I had to look. Neither of us had really served so we didn’t know the names of the parts, but resting in a brown towel and surrounded by toilet paper and gray army socks and sneakers with a reflective orange stripe was an M-16 broken down into three parts. Roee looked at the weapon with red-streaked eyes and said, look, he’s got X’s on this thing. We caught us an ace sniper. I hushed. I touched the rifle with my fingertips; it was cool and it sent a soft current up my arm. Without even touching the rifle parts, I slid my hand beneath the towel and started digging for what was underneath, in the belly of the bag. There was a blue Tupperware filled with granola cookies on a flowery napkin. I sniffed the cookies till my nose touched the hard crumbs. Then I pressed the lid firmly closed, working my fingers slowly around the rim, and put the box behind me in silence so that Roee wouldn’t notice and wouldn’t try and steal them. Afterwards I pulled out a used book with a title in small print: Me, You. Inside the flap were the words: “To Omer, From Us: May the home always be with you in your heart.” Who’s us, I wondered out loud. “What do you want?” Roee cut across me. It’ll be tricky but it’ll be a boatload of money. It’s all for the best, believe me, he said. I thought of Omer. Of how he’d go to prison and of how he wouldn’t even have a towel from home. I felt his towel and it was soft. Our towels, after a few times through the wash, were always hard and scratchy. His face surfaced. I tried to imagine him with his calm face under the shower spray, whistling some tune. Roee, listen, we have to give him back the rifle, I said apologetically. Who’s he? You know the guy? Hold on I’m just going to make a quick call here. Roee, he’ll do time because of you! So that’ll teach him not to leave his rifle in his duffel, what kind of an asshole is he? That’s how he treats his weapon? That’s military equipment right there. And besides, you, what are you now, his sister? Let him die in jail for all I care. I stepped out to get some air. That storeroom, till you step out of it, you don’t realize how airless it is. I was out of cigarettes. I squeezed the matchbox in my pocket and took out my phone. I called the police. They never answer, I thought to myself, and some secretary asked what she could help me with. I breathed heavily into the phone and hung up. I grabbed the cookies and left without a word. Roee was on the phone and didn’t even realize I’d left and that the door was open.
First thing next day I went to the training base. I got out of the car and milled around a bit near the bus stop. Then I went up to the base and looked at the gate. There was a sign: “Soldier: Clear Your Weapon Before Entry.” I thought of the disassembled rifle. A male and female soldier came out and asked what I was doing there and said it was a closed military zone and that only soldiers were authorized to be there. I said in a soft voice that I was waiting for someone and then in a stronger voice that, never mind, it’s all good. I wanted to tell them to have a good guard shift and hats off to the IDF, but they’d already started talking to each other and I didn’t want to get in the way. I went home, rejected a call from Roee, and went to sleep. I woke up in the evening and my head hurt. My mother and sister were on the couch watching “The Simpsons.” I sat between them and had to squeeze in. What’s the occasion? My mother asked. What is it, Mother’s Day? Netta, give him some of the blanket, too, come on, don’t hog the whole blanket. Not when your brother’s finally sitting with us. I got up and went to my room. You’re leaving already? my mother yelled after me as I walked down the hall. I’m coming, hold on, I yelled back, and suddenly that yelling in the house felt good. I walked back into the living room. Here, I brought some cookies, I said. I put the Tupperware on the old table and opened it up. Are these homemade cookies, where’d you get these from, what do you have a girlfriend? I smiled bashfully. You have a girlfriend! Netta yelled, come on, out with it! And she covered me up with the blanket till I couldn’t see a thing. And my mother said, these are some seriously good cookies, well done! Who’s mommy’s little angel, come here and give your mother a kiss.
Dael Rodrigues Garcia was born and raised in Jerusalem. He studied in several religious seminaries and has an MA in Hebrew Literature from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Married to Ali and a father to Roni, he teaches creative writing to adults and children and is a published poet. He’s won the Ofira Ben-Aryeh and the Sapir College prize for his short stories.
Mitch Ginsburg is a fiction editor of The Ilanot Review.