Dani held his coffee glass up to the sky. The residue the Turkish coffee grounds left on the sides filtered the rays of the late March sun like a gossamer veil that brings to light precisely what it hides.
Nuriel, Dani, and I were on our bellies on the top of a desert hill come to life for a brief week or two after a late and south-wandering thundershower. We lay on velvet-red poppies with voluptuous black irises and brassy-yellow mustard flowers watching two formations of our platoon converge from the west and south on the slopes of the next hill over. That hill, guarded by evil-eyed cardboard cutouts of Syrian soldiers, was ours to conquer. Nuriel, Dani, and I were the fire team meant to keep the paper riflemen’s heads down with high-intensity machine gun and mortar fire until the two attack forces were positioned to make their final run toward the defensive positions. Nuriel’s arm, its spare dark down glistening, was draped over his MAG machine gun. Dani’s much thicker elbow rested on a pack full of assorted charges for his 60mm mortar. I was the team leader. The platoon had done a dry run of the maneuver an hour before and now the live fire version was beginning. But the formations were still far off and we awaited our lieutenant’s order to begin the barrage. So we had taken the opportunity to make a round of coffee on Nuriel’s camp stove.
illustration by Avi Katz
Nuriel, a baby-faced kid new to our unit, just six months past his three-years stint in the Givati Brigade, was explaining to us why he had felt compelled to tell Merav, to whom he had just gotten engaged, that he first fell in love with another woman on a flower-strewn hill like this one during his first furlough after basic training.
“My friend Mendy and I were hiking a trail on Mt. Meron in the Galilee,” he told us, “and we saw two spots of white on a boulder. We got closer and saw that it was two girls in linen shirts washing their faces in a spring that spurted out from the side of the mountain into a large pool. One had long, straight hair as black as a raven and the other wore a floppy light blue hat. They were completely drenched, they’d been swimming in the pool.”
“You guys won’t believe this, but the first one looked directly at Mendy and the one in the blue hat looked straight at me. He and I stopped in our tracks—it was like we were seeing a vision from heaven. I felt the girl looking straight into my eyes. We walked slowly toward them and they got up and held out their hands in welcome.”
“And?” said Dani.
“And that was it,” said Nuriel, with a dreamy smile on his face. He rolled over on his back. “We walked the rest of the trail together, the four of us. Her name was Dafna and we were together for nearly a year afterward.”
“After you screwed her by the spring?” Dani said. “That’s what you told Merav?”
“Dani,” Nuriel chided him, “I’m talking about love, not sex. That’s why I had to tell Merav about it. Didn’t you ever fall in love like that?”
“Sure,” said Dani. “Of course I did.”
“There’s nothing like first love,” Nuriel continued. “I’m not saying it’s the best or that it’s what you want for the rest of your life, but it tells you so much about a person. That’s why I thought Merav had to know about it. I told her that story about me as soon as I realized that we were heading toward a wedding.”
“Funny. With me it was the opposite,” Dani said. “When I asked Leah to marry me, she refused to answer until I had told her about my first love. She said it was a story she needed to hear before she decided.”
Nuriel broke off a chunk of chocolate wafer and dipped it in his coffee. “I can understand that.
“In my case,” said Dani with a tease in his voice, “it might have meant no wedding.”
“You mean because she was jealous?”
The radio crackled.
“Roger,” I said into the handset.
“Ten little ones,” crackled the lieutenant’s voice.
“Ready and waiting,” I crackled back. Then, to the other two, I said: “Ten minutes. Helmets on. Nuriel, get back in fire position.”
“Not so fast,” Nuriel said. “Sun feels so good on my face.”
“Picture it,” Dani says. “I’m kneeling in front of her, engagement ring in hand, ready to put it on her finger, and she grabs her hand back and says: ‘You’re not doing anything with that ring until you tell me who was first.’”
“Surprised you!” Nuriel smiled.
“And I said, my first woman? And she said, just like you, she said, no not sex, love. And you know what? I was so high and confident that I didn’t miss a beat. ‘Leah, honeybunch,’ I say to her, ‘I first fell in love with a glass.’”
Nuriel turned his head toward Dani. “Come on, be serious.”
“I’m perfectly serious,” Dani said. This was when he held his glass up to the sky. “I’m telling you just what I told Leah. Look at it. Have you ever noticed the beauty of a well-made Turkish coffee glass? Petite, not as big as your hand. That graceful curve from the narrow base up to that full, inviting lip. There’s simple aesthetic perfection there.”
“Oh come on, Dani,” Nuriel objected. “Guys don’t fall for tableware.”
Dani placed the glass gently on the ground next to his mortar. “I was just fifteen. It was a beautiful day at the beginning of spring and my Mom had dragged me and my two sisters to visit my grandmother. I was desperate to be outside playing, but we had to sit there and tell Grandma about school and sing the Four Questions for her like we were still in kindergarten.”
“When I felt I just couldn’t sit any more I asked if I could go out. Grandma said, but you haven’t had anything to drink! And she went to the kitchen and came out a minute later with a tray of cookies and glasses just like these filled with sweet tea and mint. I took a glass and gulped down the tea as I gazed desperately at the gently swaying branches of the poplar outside her second-story window. And suddenly I felt so alone, more alone than I’d ever felt before.
“It was like a part of me had gone missing, a feeling so intense that I felt that I could not go on living if that emptiness were not filled. My grandma poured me more tea and I didn’t even thank her, just drained the glass again and then held it up before me, between me and the tree. I’d never looked at anything that way before. Suddenly I saw what a magical thing it was, how that glass was more beautiful than anything else in the universe. And I realized that I could never part with it. I wanted it beside me all the time. It was the only thing that could make me complete. This glass was my life and without it I would make a mad dash for the balcony window and leap to my death.
“‘Dani, what are you doing?’ my mother asked in her stop-embarrassing me tone of voice. I sensed that my life depending on subterfuge. I smiled, asked my grandma for another cookie, and then when she and my Mom were safely involved with a recipe for moussaka, I slipped the glass into my pocket. Grandma had so many of them that she never noticed.
“When we got home I went to the bathroom, carefully washed out the tea and crystallized sugar, dried it off with my bath towel, and placed it under my pillow. For the next two weeks the glass was in my pocket during the day and next to me in bed at night.”
“Guys,” I said, “Two minutes. Helmets.”
We strapped them on. Nuriel rolled onto his stomach and slapped a belt into the MAG. I removed an explosive mortar shell from my pack and handed it to Dani, who kneeled down next to his weapon and fiddled with the coordinates. Our heads low, we saw the hill before us through a screen of scarlet and golden flowers.
Nuriel grinned. “I bet Leah loved that story.”
Dani shrugged his shoulders. “She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She just stared at me. Then she said, ‘Are you playing games with me? Now is not the time for games.’ And I said, ‘I am perfectly serious.’ She asked, ‘And how long did your affair with the tea glass last?’”
“And I told her that I loved that tea glass passionately for close to two weeks. It was everything to me. I thought about it all the time and fondled it lovingly in my pocket. But then one evening I took it out of my jeans to put it under my pillow and I suddenly looked at it and said to myself, ‘Hey, are you bonkers? It’s a glass! You can’t be in love with a glass!’”
The radio crackled. “Fire team!” said the lieutenant’s voice.
Nuriel drew back the machine gun’s bolt.
“And what did Leah say?” Nuriel asked in the last silent minute we had to us.
“She didn’t say anything,” said Dani. “She held out her hand and I put a diamond ring on her finger. And I said, ‘Don’t you want to hear about my second love?’ And she said, ‘I’d rather not.’”
“Wow,” said Nuriel, shaking his head in disbelief. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” said Dani.
“Fire!” crackled the lieutenant’s voice.
“Fire!” I shouted.
Nuriel let loose a long volley and Dani’s mortar boomed. Smoke and dust rose from the hill before us. Lying flat, we watched through the poppies as the two attack forces advanced up opposite slopes. We kept up the barrage.
“Do you ever miss it? That tea glass?” Nuriel shouted over the din.
“Leah’s my life,” Dani shouted back. “She’s like nothing else in the world. But, like you said, that first infatuation. You never love that way again.”
Winter is the first in this quartet of army stories.