Photo: Talya Gutman Elk
Instructions Printed Inside the Box
By Nicole Hazan
When Dan’s gas mask arrived, he didn’t even open the box. He slung it over his shoulder and took it to school, knocking against his backpack as he walked. He kept it on the classroom floor next to his bag, the hard edges jutting into his shins whenever he shifted in his chair. Next to him in class, Dafna used the shiny reflection of her pencil case to dab lip-gloss on with her index finger. Dan tried to ignore the slow way she did this, how she tucked thick strands of hair behind her ears, the red imprints her denim shorts left on her thighs. As she was screwing the cap back onto her lip-gloss, she knocked her pencil case onto the floor. The pens clattered around Dan’s feet and some of the pupils lifted their heads from their graph paper with half-interest. The teacher turned away from the chalked circles on the board, their radiuses, circumferences, diameters, and glared. Her eyes roved over the stirring students, over the laboured rattling of the air conditioner, and rested on him.
“We’re all waiting for you,” she said.
Though he wanted to defend himself, Dan scraped his chair back. He could feel Dafna’s eyes on him as he fumbled for the pens on his hands and knees.
The next day, Dafna used highlighters to draw on her gas mask box. She twisted away from him when she was doing so, her arm shielding her words, whispering to Tali who sat opposite, giggling. Dan pretended not to notice when they both glanced back at him, their bodies shaking with laughter, Dafna’s fine, light hair skimming across her face. There was a short scuffle and Tali wrestled Dafna’s box out of her grasp. When she returned it, he spied dafnaheartdani, felt-tipped in pink letters on the cardboard. Dan felt sweat on his forehead and pretended to ignore Dafna thumbing away the words, the ink staining her fingers. A flush spread across the back of her neck and when the teacher turned to write on the board, Dan leaned across and drew a streak in pencil across Dafna’s box. He felt the hairs on her arm graze his, light against dark, but the next moment, she scowled and snatched at her box and he jerked back. He listened to the chalk scratch against the blackboard, the print of his textbook blurring before his eyes and the sense of something heavy and solid unfurling in his stomach. But later that day, when he hauled his gas mask onto his desk, Dafna made a sharp, furtive movement and scrawled in purple across the lid. There was a guest lecturer who was pointing towards the safe room behind their heads and demonstrating how the mask fitted snugly underneath their chins, but Dafna was waiting for his response. Dan guessed the man couldn’t see them behind the opaque plastic of his mask anyway and so they spent the rest of the day drawing on each other’s boxes, sneaking glances at each other and looking away when they met the other’s eyes.
One lesson, his teacher announced that they would decorate their boxes and they spent a whole hour, actual class time, fiddling around with glue sticks and tubes of glitter. She’d brought in comics and Dan cut out a jagged strip and pasted it onto the brown cardboard. Dafna copied song lyrics onto her box; others drew stick figure versions of themselves, the proportions wrong – the bodies too small, the hands too big. Dan suspected his teacher had got her idea from him and Dafna and seeing the multi-coloured packs around school, he liked to think they had started the trend. When Dafna pulled him away from the others as they were walking home from school, and kissed him, using her tongue and pressing her breasts against his t-shirt, he knew she half-believed it too. One of her hands clutched his waist, the other gripped her cigarette, the butt so close to his face he could feel its heat. He pulled away so she wouldn’t feel his erection and, after she had relit her cigarette, she took his hand. Even though his fingers sweated against hers, he didn’t break away until he reached the gate to his apartment block.
The summer was supposed to be dying by now but it persisted, the air hot, dusty, still. There was the sour taste of smoke in his mouth and Dan pulled Coke from the fridge, swigging from the bottle and glancing behind him to check that his mother wasn’t around. The TV had been left on and Dan half listened to Shamir speaking, the feed flashing from his face to grey apartment buildings in Beersheva, their roofs collapsed into rubble. The kitchen smelled of something sweet and rotten and Dan switched off the TV and went in search of his mother, wondering if she was going to cook. When he pushed open her bedroom door, she was lying on the bed with the ceiling fan whirring above her head. She turned towards him with glassy eyes and murmured he should practice for his bar mitzvah. He dashed away, his flip-flops slapping against the kitchen floor and, with the gate chinking against its frame, ran to the falafel vendors on the corner. He knew that if he chose a good moment, when the vendors weren’t cursing from the oil spitting onto their hands, they might lift falafel balls straight from the vat with silver prongs and offer it to him. Though they burned, he begged for more, and afterwards licked the breadcrumbs from his fingers.
He missed two days of school after his bar mitzvah, too exhausted, he told his mother, to go in after the celebrations. For once, she had indulged him. She hovered at the threshold of his bedroom, eyes flickering approvingly over his grandfather’s tallit in its embroidered case, balanced on his chair. She didn’t even mention the open packet of cigarettes on his desk. When he returned to school, his math teacher smirked at his half-attempted answers on graph paper, where he left most of the page blank. Now that he was a man, she said, he should be able to competently understand Pythagoras’ Theorem. Would he explain it to everyone?
“This homework is for third graders,” he said. He felt the class stirring behind him. His shoulders hunched and his jaw set. “Fucking third graders,” he repeated.
He left before she could react, slamming the classroom door and smoking in the courtyard until it got too hot and he had no choice but to go back inside. When he slunk in, the class was watching a video, elbows propping them up, and the history teacher glanced up but didn’t ask him why he was late. The air conditioner blasted onto the students at the back so they shivered in sweaters while the other students sweated. He slumped into the empty chair next to Dafna and, under the table, put his hand on her leg. He inched his fingers up her thigh and waited for her to push him away, but she didn’t. In his mind, he counted the days until Sukkot.
At home, he kept finding cold mugs of mint tea stranded around the flat. The walls were thin and he could hear his mother telling his brother Boaz over the phone about Dani’s new girlfriend who was always coming round. He watched her from his bedroom doorway, the fragile way she cradled the receiver to her ear, remembered how in synagogue he had looked up at her in the row above the men, her hands clutching the gold bar as if for support. At the end of his bar mitzvah, his brother had put a hand on his mother’s back and she had smiled. Boaz had only been gone three months but he already seemed out of place amongst them with his close-shaved head, his stubble gone, and the back of his neck scorched dark from the sun. He had lost weight in the army and his only pair of black trousers hung low on his hips. Dan wished Boaz were still at home, if only to break the long days, their heat, their silence.
When his mother passed the phone over, his brother told him over the crackly line about sex: what to do and how to do it. He flushed and whispered that his brother should fuck off, he knew what he was doing, he didn’t need his help. Boaz laughed and hung up before he could give the phone back to his mother.
One afternoon, after a bomb landed in Ashdod and his mother had pulled the curtains shut in her room, he ran barefoot to the beach and jumped in the sea. There were jellyfish and he was stung, so he got out and lay on the sand, the drops of water drying on his skin, his chest moving in and out. A shadow fell over him; it was Boaz.
“Where did you come from?” Dan asked.
“I saw you from the bus stop,” he said. “What are you doing out here alone?”
“Nothing,” Dan said. “I didn’t realise you were coming home this weekend.”
“Things are quieter, so, you know,” Boaz said. He let his rucksack slide onto the sand, slung his gun from around his neck and placed it on top. “Move up,” he said, and Dan twisted his towel around, flecking sand onto their legs, so that both of them could sit on it, side by side. Boaz hauled off his boots, sighing, then unbuttoned his shirt, peeled it from his body, and folded it over them. “It’s fucking hot,” he said eventually.
Dan nodded. “Yup.” He stared out at the sea and wished he’d brought sunglasses. The sun was lower in the sky now, completely round, reddening, expanding as it sank. When he closed his eyes, he could see red spots. He kept them closed and the red spots faded, then disappeared. They sat, unspeaking, water glistening in patches on Dan’s body as it dried. The sun was a sliver of red now, the sky purple.
“So what’s with that girl?” Boaz asked. His legs were coated with sand up to his shins. Dan saw a new scar down Boaz’s back near his shoulder blade, reddish-white against the brown.
“I don’t know,” Dan said. He traced shapes in the sand with his index finger. “How should I know?”
“Have you fucked her yet?”
“But you’re going to.”
“Of course,” Dan said. He felt, for an instant, a need to ask Boaz whether he had noticed the mugs of mint tea at home. Then, bizarrely, if he could still remember Pythagoras’ Theorem – what was it exactly? But Boaz was squinting into the distance, watching the sun meet the sea.
Boaz jerked upright; the light was grey. Then an explosive sound from far away, wind and sand blowing, sirens in the distance, red and yellow lights in the half darkness.
“You okay, Dani?” Boaz asked. The sea was dark now, rolling towards them up the sand. “Here, stand up.” Boaz was already wearing his uniform. He was holding his gun. He shielded his eyes and grabbed Dan’s arm. “Get dressed. We need to go.”
Dan reached for his backpack and fumbled for the box. Some of the comic strip tore back from the cardboard. “I can’t remember how to use my mask,” he said.
“Don’t worry about that now. Come on.”
“They taught us but I can’t remember.”
“Let’s go.” He pulled at Dan’s arm. “Quickly.”
Dan looked at him. “Okay.” He hauled his box over his shoulder and the black plastic strap rubbed against his skin. He took a step towards his brother. He tugged at his sleeve. Behind them, sirens wailed.