Passion in a time of war

'I went off with my hands in my torn coat pockets.
My overcoat too was becoming ideal.
I travelled beneath the sky, Muse! And I was your vassal.
Oh dear me! What marvellous loves I dreamed of!'

– Rimbaud

EVENTUALLY IT WOULD be Miriam Papuashvilli, the queen of hashish and orgies, the professional teenage runaway and con artist, the most unlikely candidate for such benevolent matters, who would help mend my rapidly breaking heart. I was turning seventeen when love invaded my life as suddenly as the Iraqi Scud missiles would invade my country soon after. But what was Saddam's threat compared with falling in love for the first time?

Miriam was my age and already a mythical figure, at least in our neighbourhood perched on the edge of Ashdod, an industrial port city on the coast of the Mediterranean. She had been mysteriously absent for more than a year, having run away from home shortly before my family moved into her building from another equally seedy place full of people without means. Miriam's parents lived on the fifth floor, directly beneath our apartment, theirs mirroring ours in shape and size. Like my mother, hers was obsessed with God and, to please Him, covered her hair. Miriam's mother's headscarves were always black, and she reminded me of the Georgian grandmas with equally dark headscarves who used to sit on our chipped street benches, lazily baking their decaying flesh. Miriam's father, a bald, silent man, spent most of his time working on the crew of some commercial ship. There were other daughters too – so many that I lost count. I wondered how they all coped with Miriam's absence. And with her reputation.

Rumours about Miriam trailed like ghosts between our giant housing commission edifices that smelled of piss and sweat, and the poorly restored 1960s American cars, and the overflowing rubbish bins left out front that provided a home to stray cats. I had heard many stories about her, in several accents and dialects: from the Moroccan guitarist with the black man's wide lips who claimed to have slept with Miriam once, from the shy Ethiopian schoolboys who hadn't yet sufficiently mastered Hebrew, and from Boris, the Russian representative of the housing commission, who warned me not to go near her if she reappeared.

There were debates about Miriam's fate, and all the options sounded equally fascinating to my eager ears. The guitarist talked with a knowing air about some smuggling business she might have been involved in. An unemployed alcoholic from the middle building suggested she had joined a hippie commune where they practised sex with horses. Others maintained she was probably a junkie by now, or else dead.

Despite the latter prediction, I still fantasised about meeting Miriam. Restless and lonely, I felt trapped in Ashdod. It was a city where tradition oozed through every pavement crack, where suntanned skin and a taste for mediocrity were cultivated. I, the recent Russian arrival equipped with oversized glasses and a passion for the classics, lacked both these attributes.

Already adamant about becoming a writer, I hoped this occupation would rescue me from the drudgery of my existence. Enthusiastically I copied a quote from Arthur Rimbaud into my diary: 'the poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessence.'

I was impressed with Rimbaud's formula of the disordering of senses as a fertiliser for creativity, or perhaps liked the permission to transgress that writing could grant. Whatever it was, I believed him that it was at the margins that life laid itself bare, and spent my days daydreaming of all things dark, forbidden, carnivalesque: anything that took place at night or in back rooms.

Indeed, in my mid-twenties, I – the good Russian girl – would publish a collection of short stories populated with psychopaths, minor gangsters and women living on the edge. But in 1990 this was still an unknown future. Cowardice made me worry about the poisons' side effects. So I opted for voyeurism. I hoped one day to meet Miriam, to live out my fantasies through her.


EVEN BEFORE MIRIAM'S return I found an unexpected ticket to the world beyond Ashdod. After merely four years in the Promised Land I somehow wound up a finalist in a competition to join the elite club of young reporters for Maariv Lanoar, a popular youth journal with an editorial office in Tel Aviv. I would be making frequent pilgrimages to a city I took to be an intellectual Mecca.

But even there, I soon found out, I was misplaced. If in Ashdod I was seen as too eccentric in my hippie clothes and bookishness – too Russian – then for my new colleagues, mostly rich Tel Avivian kids from elite schools, I was too timid and lacking in urbane flair (in a typically Slavic way, they must have thought). Russian migrants had never been fashionable in Israel, especially not in Tel Aviv, a city which prided itself on having a worldly soul, so long as the world was limited to New York, London and a handful of other funky western metropolises. Still, I hoped time and perseverance would turn me into one of my new peers.

Whoever first likened love to the act of falling was an expert on the teenage condition. In my case, love turned out to be a banana skin thrown under my skipping feet. Adam Shalev, the star of our journal, whose witty words I'd been reading religiously every week, turned out to be much shorter than I had imagined him to be, and sported an overgrown beard and torn dirty jeans. But who cared?

Adam had his own interpretation of why I kept staring at him and, dispensing with the usual introductions, explained to me his dishevelled state. He said that, inspired by Zen writings, he was conducting a social experiment meant to prove the shallowness of our society – its tendency to judge people by their looks. I agreed immediately that this was the right thing to do, although I had no idea what Zen meant (and therefore associated it with sophistication). In turn, Adam wanted to know whether my accent was Russian. I nodded with a sinking heart, anticipating a swift end to our conversation.

To my surprise Adam revealed himself to be a fan of Solzhenitsyn and, apparently curious about my childhood under communism, suggested we retreat to the privacy of an interview room to discuss it. I followed him, amazed at my luck.

Unlike Tel Aviv, Adam Shalev declared his love for me very quickly. Shortly after our first meeting we became known as the couple at Maariv Lanoar. My male colleagues became friendlier towards me and the female journalists occasionally checked me out, presumably trying to understand why I, such an oddity, was the chosen one. I had no idea either, but I felt like I had finally achieved something important in my life.

Yet I hardly ever saw Adam. He spent most of his time writing and tending to his crazy mother, with whom he lived in a cockroach-ridden apartment and who, between her frequent hospitalisations, managed to tend to eleven cats. Otherwise, he often travelled the country in search of stories and to practise free love (another social experiment derived from the philosophy of Zen, he explained) with his many female fans who, most likely, weren't virgins like me.

To fit into Adam's life I'd skip school and take the bus to Tel Aviv to spend a few hours with him. After those brief meetings, peppered with fervent kissing, shared journalistic assignments and my tears at our imminent separation, I lay in my bed, depressed. Love, contrary to the wisdom of the Maariv Lanoar advice columnists, didn't turn out to be a panacea for loneliness.

When Miriam finally returned it was mid-autumn. Kuwait had already been invaded and my mother had replaced her gaudy headscarves with a banana-blond wig to keep herself warm as well as modest. The sky had become grey like our emaciated street cats and the air had a melancholic coolness that made me pine for Adam even more.

That autumn, though still shy, I started to grasp the power of the pen. It got me to many previously unattainable places. I met pop stars and politicians. With the excuse of looking for a story, I went down to the fifth floor and knocked on Miriam's door. My fingers felt numb.

Miriam's mother let me in without greeting me. Their apartment, like ours, smelled of migration and tradition, with its heavy, meaty odours of bodies and cooking food. Their living room was dark, with brown velvet curtains always drawn across the windows. Like ours, this home was a secretive, messy place, not meant for guests.

We moved through a narrow hallway that led to three crammed bedrooms. In one of them Miriam was seated on an unmade bottom bunk. Stocky and brown like the curtains, she wore a white singlet without a bra and white panties. She was shaving her legs with a razor and didn't even look up at me. I forgot my rehearsed introduction and kept staring at her muscled calves, shocked by this nonchalant performance of what I considered to be a shameful secret ritual.

'So, you're the journalist,' Miriam said finally.

I was pleased to discover she was not the only subject of the neighbourhood storytellers.

'Y...yep. For Maariv Lanoar...'

'No fucking way!' Miriam said with appreciation. Unselfconsciously she moved aside the lacy edge of her panties, exposing thick pubic hair. The voyeur had finally met her exhibitionist. Breathlessly I watched as she slowly, pedantically sculpted her bikini line.

'Right... You can write a whole book about me, not just an article, you know?'

I believed her.

'Go on, sit down and ask your questions.'

'So...' I said, trying to appear professional as I carefully placed myself in the corner of the bunk. 'Is it true about the horses?'

Without even blinking Miriam shook her long black curls and burst into laughter – a marvellous masculine staccato alternating with the sound of a stuttering motor. She laughed and laughed, until I finally snapped out of my stupor and, realising the comedy of the situation, weaved my own nervous laughter into hers.

'You must be a virgin, sister,' Miriam said, her strong triangular shoulders still shuddering. 'Let me tell you, fucking men is good enough. Why bother with horses? So, what else would you like to know about me?'


WHAT DID I not want to know about her? Ignoring the tight-lipped disapproval of my mother I continued my expeditions down to the fifth floor. Miriam and I discovered we could talk for hours. Or, more precisely, she could talk and I could listen. Sprawled odalisque-like on the bunk in her lace underwear and scratching her crotch like a man, Miriam described her life in Jaffa's refuge for runaway teenagers. The wildness of her tales – pot smoking, jamming parties, petty betrayals, car stealing, fistfights – narrated within the familiarity of her apartment was exciting without being frightening. I was especially fascinated by her sexuality.

'Listen, sister,' she'd tell me in her thick voice, 'when I meet a man, I never waste time. I check straight away what he's got in his pants.'

Miriam's attitude confused me. I struggled to reconcile her unabashed appetite for men with the kind of masculinity she favoured, which feminism had made unfashionable. Unshaven faces, heavy belt buckles, crooked teeth, leather jackets and calloused hands turned her on. Was she a pervert? A wounded teenager? A fallen woman or a truly liberated one? I held her in contempt for being so easy, while simultaneously envying the freedom of her desire. At that time I was too busy negotiating territories with Adam (my breasts were still a bastion) to concern myself with pleasure. I wouldn't confide in Miriam about my boyfriend, though, as I was too insecure to admit my defeats.

Miriam seemed to like my bespectacled attention and, surely, my writing pen. But she came and went unpredictably, never inviting me into her other life, the one outside our neighbourhood.


IN DECEMBER, SADDAM declared poetically that if the Americans attacked Iraq he'd let his fire eat half of Israel. Everyone around me was talking incessantly of war and death and stocking their pantries with canned food. But I had more urgent matters to attend to. During one of Miriam's absences Adam finally invited me into his home. I loved everything about that apartment: the rotting floorboards covered with cat excrement, the empty fridge, the toothless mother. What I found there assured me that I did have something in common with that confident, self-sufficient man.

When it was time to catch the last bus to Ashdod, Adam made the Zen point that the future, with its potential for war and other disappointments, was non-existent, and it would be beneficial for my personal development to learn to focus on the present, to live in the moment. He suggested I ignore my parents' prohibition and stay the night. I did, and we spent it tucked together tight in his single bed. I was drunk on his body, with its citrusy scent. Eventually I got over my inhibitions and let him be the first man to touch my breasts.

The next morning, with Adam's smell still clinging to my skin, I sniffed myself all the way home on the bus. On my return, the illusionary future quickly materialised and I was grounded. Adam was too busy to visit me in Ashdod. Again I fell ill with loneliness.

In January 1991 the first missiles hit Israel. Whenever the radio announced the 'viper snake' warning alarm for a Scud attack everyone, anticipating the horrors of biochemical death, would lock themselves into what we assumed would become our coffins – rooms sealed with plastic sheeting.

I wondered whether it was all God's plot to punish me for my promiscuity. I spent hours in a stuffy, cramped bedroom with my three younger brothers and my parents, who managed to fight with each other even with their gasmasks on. I thought I'd go mad if I didn't get out. Miriam too grew restless in her familial microcosm. She decided to visit a lover, a lifeguard from Giv'at Olga – a little coastal town rich with flowers and vivid sunsets. But now even Miriam wouldn't hit the road on her own. So finally I was invited.

I was scared of Saddam and my parents, but at night I packed a rucksack and with the sunrise we snuck out to hitchhike. Uncharacteristically for our overcrowded country, that morning the roads were mostly empty of traffic and stretched silently alongside the skeletons of wintry trees. I assumed that because of the war any passing drivers would stop to deliver us to the dubious safety of sealed rooms. But only some men offered us rides. Occasionally we had to wait for hours at hitchhiking shelters or in the midst of empty highways, hoping no 'viper snake' would be heard.

To reduce the risk of getting raped or killed or both, we only accepted lifts from single drivers, flirting with them, sometimes willingly, sometimes out of obligation. Miriam, who always took the front seat, at times would progress to kissing and once, lying down in the back, I glimpsed her French-manicured hand sliding up some young driver's crotch.

A novice at hitchhiking, I soon became addicted to the movement, the ever-changing cars, men and conversations. I was happy. Miriam had a sharp knife inside her boot, and I trusted her to protect us. The winter was soft and sunny, and winked through the windscreens as the drivers accelerated to impress us – though they always had their radios on and we got all the political updates in between the flirting, cold sunshine and speed. Fortunately the viper snake stayed in its lair, and as we kept moving the war faded to a mere apparition. Still, we carried our gasmasks with us – just in case.

Kobi the lifeguard was long, smooth and shiny, like a groomed python: alluring, despite his broken front tooth and acne scars. When he spoke to Miriam, even when he kissed her, he sneaked glances at me, just like the drivers had.

I was not a terribly pretty teenager. But next to Miriam I must have appeared ultra-feminine, with my long hair, excess of purple lipstick and hourglass figure encased in a rainbow-coloured dress. Miriam didn't seem disturbed by the lifeguard's divided attentions. She walked around his well-heated little house wearing a white G-string, playing absentmindedly with her small triangular breasts. Kobi mostly limited his attire to shorts. I, fully dressed, envied the freedom of their bodies, but also felt vicariously decadent and daring.

When Miriam and Kobi weren't busy in the bedroom the three of us sat in the tiny space that Kobi called the living room, where I slept on one of the two single beds substituting for couches. He and Miriam smoked joints as we followed the combat on television, proud that ours was the first war ever to be broadcast live. The news of the fire explosions, buildings reduced to rubble and elderly dying from heart attacks whenever the alarm was sounded made us all feel sharply alive.

We drank wine and talked incessantly. In fact, it was my turn to play the role of Scheherazade, as Kobi was a man of few words and Miriam's tongue was mostly busy with his skin. Despite their mutual preoccupation, never before had I enjoyed a more attentive audience for my stories, mostly borrowed from books. Neither of them was a reader, but both were curious about anything, always up for a good tale. It was easy to please them, even with the unfashionable classics I so loved. In their company I forgot to pretend I was someone else.

Eventually I told them about Adam: 'My boyfriend, like you, believes in free love. He says individual freedom is necessary to experience life fully. I can see his point. But then, it's he who is experiencing life. I'm mainly...waiting for him.' I had never voiced these sorrows to anyone before.

'He's full of shit, yer boyfriend!' Miriam spat something yellow into an ashtray. 'Free or not, love isn't about neglecting.'

Kobi nodded in agreement. I was thinking hard. No one had ever before raised the possibility that Adam Shalev, the guru of Israeli youth, could be full of shit.

ON OUR THIRD and final night in Giv'at Olga, Iraqi soldiers torched more Kuwaiti oil wells. On the news we heard Arafat declaring Saddam's invasion to be the first step towards the liberation of Palestine. As I glanced towards the other bed I realised Miriam and Kobi had just liberated themselves from their underwear, and I saw my friend, small and strong, mounting Kobi's body, sliding up and down his hairless chest.

I could have walked out. Or retreated to the bedroom. But I didn't. Instead, I pretended to be watching Arafat, while from the corner of my eye I followed my naked friends. I saw Kobi's large hands holding on to Miriam's buttocks, covering them entirely, grasping at them as though her behind was a fruit he wanted to split. The distance between our beds was so insignificant that I could smell their juices. I was terribly embarrassed, but I wouldn't have left the room even if the viper snake had hissed its call.

Their duet went on for a while. Despite the eagerness painted on their faces neither seemed to orgasm. Perhaps the additional excitement they sought – that of my witnessing gaze – turned out to be an embarrassment. Perhaps they were more modest than they imagined themselves to be. Whatever it was, Miriam slid off the lifeguard. I heard her call my name, and: 'Oops, look what's happened to Kobi! Come on, don't be a prude, have a look...'

I did. I had never before seen a fully naked man in such proximity. He lay still, his long muscles stretching like guitar strings, and with an odd little smile he gestured down his body. His cock was hidden between his legs and all I could see was the reddish triangle of his pubic hair.

'Didn't you know I'm a tranny? I had it chopped off.' He laughed.

We all laughed, as though the three of us were sitting around the television again. It felt almost comfortable.

Miriam resumed her position on top. 'Want to join us?'

'Course not,' I said quickly. But now that some invisible barrier had been broken, I stopped faking my interest in Arafat. I watched them openly.

This time Miriam moved slower, sitting very upright. I watched her close her eyes, biting her bottom lip, silent; Kobi kept quiet too. I could no longer distinguish clearly between them and myself. I felt their pleasure flushing through my body, and yet there was no price to pay for this. I didn't need to lose my virginity, mask my Russianness or my shyness, or even write. I felt free just being – in that moment, in that room.

Eventually I came back to my senses and decided it was time to afford my friends some privacy. I got up and walked out of Kobi's house, into the winter of 1991.


YEARS LATER I came across Jack Kerouac's autobiographical novel On the Road, his love poem to his larger-than-life friend Neal Cassady. 'The only people for me,' Kerouac wrote, referring primarily to Cassady, 'are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles...'

Like Kerouac, I too have always needed someone else's flame to illuminate my writing path. And when I met Miriam, she was on fire. Yet, rather than being a mere muse, she gave me the gift of true friendship.

Things shifted after that trip. On our return my parents were so relieved to have me back intact that no punishment was ever delivered. And even though Scuds still hovered above our icy sky like exotic birds of prey, Gorbachev and Bush were already negotiating a ceasefire. Adam also called to negotiate our love, perhaps alerted by my recent absence. Forgoing Zen for a moment, he went as far as suggesting future plans for us, which even included him coming all the way to Ashdod. But I did the previously unimaginable. I told him it was over. The words – unplanned – slid off my tongue by themselves.

I didn't get the chance to discuss the break-up with Miriam. In that same week her father returned too, from the sea, and broke her nose, and she left our neighbourhood once again.

The next time we would meet we would be adults making new lives for ourselves in Tel Aviv. That night, in a little wooden bar on Ben Yehuda Street not far from my former editorial office, I'd tell Miriam I had heard Adam had gone mad like his mother. And she'd tell me about her recent career as a well-paid callgirl, and that the satisfaction in the job was that she was at last getting laid enough. We'd laugh and repeatedly clink our glasses to express our affection for each other, and I'd confide that I was writing stories about her. And she'd smile at me approvingly: 'No fucking way, sister!' And when the book would get published she'd never dispute my didactic fantasies of her getting raped with a vodka bottle, as bad girls 'deserved', but say proudly to her new man: 'This book is about me.'

Even in her final metamorphosis, when she would cover her curls with a headscarf like our mothers did, and grow her post-pregnancy body large, Miriam would still display my stories alongside her husband's holy books. The last time we'd meet, this time over Kiddush wine, she would advise me to find God ASAP, and a husband. 'Forget writing, sister. Have a child,' she'd say with her usual conviction.

It would be then that I'd know I was on my own again. And there would be delicious sadness in that realisation.

Selected for The Best Australian Essays 2012

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