The door handle jiggled. Chaya, sitting on the bed, her breasts still bare, shivered, then grimaced, knowing what the next move would be. On the colorless street, beyond the drawn shade behind the bed, men and women murmured as the water cart pulled up. She knew one of the men’s voices well. Just two days ago an Arab Legion shell had fallen a hundred meters down the street and a fragment had cut the throat of Mrs. Teitelbaum’s sister-in-law, killing the horse, and shattering the cart. Where the water was not mixed with blood, people had mopped it up with handkerchiefs and squeezed moisture into their mouths.
Chaya glanced at the boy in the bed. He was lying on his back, staring at the mildew on the ceiling. His sun-fired head and neck looked as if they had been grafted on to his pale body. She quickly pushed her arms into the sleeves of her smock and stood up. The smock did little to warm her and floor was icy. Now the whole door shook and the boy’s friend shouted: “Hey, you two going into overtime?”
“It’s Ari,” the boy said matter-of-factly. He stroked the line of his hairless chest with his left hand and his right moved down under the corner of the blanket that covered his loins.
She brushed her hair, stooping before a tiny mirror propped up on a rough wooden table against the wall. “Should I let him in?”
“It’s not his real name,” the boy said, turning to look at her.
“It usually isn’t,” she said. “Mine isn’t. Nor is yours.”
“You speak Hebrew so precisely. I mean, for someone who’s been here just two years,” the boy said. Then he quickly added: “I like that.”
“Get dressed and don’t forget to pay.”
She glanced at him quickly. When this happened to others, they cried, or raged. She couldn’t tell what he was feeling, did not want to want to know. The air outside cracked with sniper shots even though they had said there would be a cease fire today. She felt her heart beating against the bars she had welded around it soon after arriving in this dank and lonely city, when she realized that she could survive only this way. She would not let it out. He would speak of his woes to others.
Mostly, he seemed confused. “I have to pay? But we didn’t do anything.”
The door rattled again. “Hey, Jori, we have to get back to our unit! Hey, you, what’s your name, sweetie?”
“Half an hour. And I worked for it.”
“I’m a soldier.” Throwing the blanket aside and looking down at his flaccid member, he did not seem entirely convinced of the fact. “We don’t have much money.”
Ari was shouldering the door. The screws that held the hook on would give way any minute. “Stop pushing!” she called out sharply. “I will open in a minute.” The door relaxed.
“When you take a taxi you have to pay the driver even if it’s raining at your destination,” she said. “Get dressed.”
He pulled on a pair of khaki pants smeared with filth. He sighed. “Ari has the money.”
She had forgotten. She usually took payment in advance but they had been in a hurry. The thick-armed friend, his face pocked and covered with orange stubble, had explained that the boy was after a night in the Italian hospital. Down below Saris, in a convoy, a bullet had grazed his shoulder and another his thigh. Fortunately nothing serious. The sisters had wanted him to say another night but they had to get back to their unit and head back to Tel Aviv to bring more provisions. But the boy was in shock and what he really needed was a quick fuck. Then he’d be like new. They didn’t have any money on them but he’d get some from the other guys and be back Jack Robinson, he promised. And he tossed a condom at him and left them at her door. The boy, bathed by the nuns, smelled clean; his friend reeked of old sweat and grease.
There was nothing to do now but let the friend in, and of course he had a big grin on his face. He strode over to the boy and slapped him on his bare back. The boy winced—the slap landed just below his bandaged wound. He grinned at her. “I’d try you, too, but the guys are waiting.” It was only then that he noticed the boy’s impassive face. “Hey, the idea was that this would cheer you up,” he said, putting an index finger under the boy’s chin to lift it. “She was specially recommended for you.” He glanced at her. “Artist, they say said. Does you and paints you at the same time.” The boy was lacing his boots, his back still bare.
She nodded and wondered what the boy would say. Ari was about to toss a banknote on the bed but stopped at the last minute. “Wasn’t she any good?”
The boy focused on his boots. “She says she gets paid anyway.”
The friend looked at her, then back at him. “Whadeyou mean anyway?”
The boy shrugged.
He fired a silent question at her. She pulled off her smock and he gulped and put his hand down to his crotch. She put it back on. The friend looked at the boy, who picked the condom off the bed and held it out at arm’s length.
“Maybe you’ll need it.”
“I mean, she’s a bit skinny, but we all are. Once the war is over and Jerusalem becomes our capital and we get enough to eat, she’ll be fine.” The boy looked at her and tried to smile. When the war’s over, she thought, I won’t be here. Not in this room.
“She did her best. Not her fault.”
The friend was flummoxed. “Hey, I get a hard-on just looking at her.”
She pointed to a clock on her table. “I have someone else coming. You have to go.”
“Look,” the friend said. “He really needs this. It’s an operational matter. He can’t fight this way. I’ll just step outside and you give him another ten minutes.” He gave her a wink. “Do whatever you have to do. I’m adding a little extra.” He threw a bill and some coins on the bed and pushed back the boy’s extended arm.
“I’m not worth it,” the boy said. His other arm had gotten caught in the sleeve of his shirt and he was pushing at it helplessly. “I’m going to die soon anyway, just like Yoram and Uri and Gadi and Ami.”
The friend gave him an exasperated look. “I’m going to die, too. But not a virgin.” He looked at her apologetically. “He’s only seventeen. Lied about his age to get into the Palmach.”
She needed the money. Rent was overdue and she was hungry. And rates were way down now that the British paras were gone. She had to work longer hours and she had less time to paint. A regular was coming and then maybe after going to the market she could sketch until night fell. Then Mrs. Teitelbaum would bring her more work. Mrs. Teitelbaum had promised that, when the war was over she’d arrange a meeting with Ardon, the director of the Bezalel Academy. Her sister-in-law knew him, she said.
She peeked out the window from behind the shade, but no light came in. Her next man was still in line. The truck was just pulling up.
“Ten more minutes,” she agreed.
The friend saluted. “The Hebrew nation is grateful for your contribution to the national defense effort.” He laughed and turned to go out.
“Wait,” the boy said. He had overcome his shirt and was buttoning it up.
The friend turned to him and put his hands on his hips. “You have to,” he said sternly. “It’s for your own good.”
“I’m going to die anyway,” the boy said. “Maybe today. It’s a waste of time. We have to get back to Tel Aviv and bring more provisions.”
The friend motioned her to take the money on the bed, which she did.
“She’s paid. You don’t want to waste our money, do you?”
The boy shrugged. “You like her. I’ll go outside and you do it.”
She raised one foot to warm it on the opposite thigh, then the other.
“I don’t get you,” the friend said. “When I was your age all I wanted to do was stick my cock into every woman I saw.”
The boy laughed, but his eyes were looking at the floor again. “And now?”
“Well, I’m not that much older now.”
The boy raised his eyes to her. She realized that it was the first time since she brought him into the room that he had looked straight at her. “It’s too bad I’m going to die today,” he said, “because I’d really like to get to know you after the war.”
“Why wait until after the war?” the friend said. “Think about today.”
“After the war, things will be different, won’t they?” The boy had directed the question at her. He was looking straight into her eyes. She felt that the bars around her heart were about to crack so she turned away. She thought she had left all this back there, in Sered, that in Jerusalem she would be someone else, but the city, and her dreams, had dictated otherwise. But only for a time. That she knew.
“We’d be different people then, wouldn’t we?” The boy was pleading with her, begging her to look at him. “Not who we are now.” A shell exploded some streets away. There were shouts and screams from below. “If we actually lived,” he added. She heard heavy footsteps on the stairs.
She steeled herself and stared at the pallid wall.
The boy was silent. She turned. “You must go now.”
“Give the money back,” the friend demanded. “You don’t know how to do your work.” But the boy grabbed his forearm and pulled him to the door.
“Leave her alone,” he said. “She did everything she could.”
“How would you know?”
“I’ll tell you on the way. Let’s go. They’re waiting.”
The friend glared at her and then at the boy. “We gave up cigarettes for this!”
The boy propelled the friend out the door. A black-coated, bearded figure was puffing up the stairs, bearing two large jugs of water. The boy turned to her.
“Good-bye,” he said.
She shivered. “Good-bye.” She signaled to Mr. Teitelbaum to wait on the landing below.
“I’m going to die today. Or maybe tomorrow.”
She opened her mouth but no words came out because her heart was encircled.
“And I’ll visit you. After the war.”
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