A few days ago there was a terrorist attack ten minutes from my house. And it didn’t matter at all.
I was in the middle of a spirited game of Bananagrams with my seven-year-old babysitting charge when a ringing cell phone interrupted my stunning, and fully orchestrated, defeat. I left my opponent in the middle of R-O-L-L-E-R-S-K-A-T-E-S to take the call.
“Hey, where are you?” Since moving to Tel Aviv in the thick, humid summer of 2012, I had developed the kind of relationship with the colleagues of my masters program that quickly and frequently transcended the need for telephone pleasantries.
The caller, my good friend, former housemate, and Miami-bartender-turned-intelligence-analyst, Natalie, stated plainly: “Something happened. There was another bus bombing. In Bat Yam.”
Whenever “something” happens in Israel, there’s always a very similar progression of actions that follow. A hasty, breathless phone call from a friend is followed by a mental scan of people you know in the area is followed by a flurry of texts, WhatsApp inquiries, phone calls, and Facebook messages is followed by scrolling through pictures of shattered bus windows on Ynet that evening. Sometimes, if the “something” is particularly bad, or lethal, the international news will catch wind of it, and you will sit up at 1am explaining to your grandparents in Wisconsin in practiced, patient tones that “it wasn’t even a bus route I use normally,” which means exactly nothing to them.
As commonplace as Israel’s culture of volatility has become to me, I often neglect to consider how jarring it is for my family to hear these reports I sometimes forget to even mention. I never thought I would use Google Earth to show my mother that incoming rocket strikes from Gaza are still “far away” from my Tel Aviv home, listening to her tongue trip over the Hebrew city names on the map. It’s difficult to explain to them that the “somethings” I’ve seen in my 17 months in Israel are small potatoes; the months I’ve lived here are some of the most peaceful in this nation’s recent history. Where I live now, “peace” is measured in relative terms.
“Yeah, no, I’m at work. I’m fine.”
“Okay, I’ve gotta run. Call you later.”
My anxious fingers have confused the touch display of my cellphone, and now the screen is frozen. I don’t live in Bat Yam. After finally conceding I was too broke to be spending my thesis year renting in the absurdly expensive neighborhoods of the Old North, I’d recently relocated to the city’s southern suburbs. Consequently, I ride a bare minimum of four buses each day to reach my English tutoring and babysitting commitments around the greater Tel Aviv area. I don’t live in Bat Yam. But the family of my Israeli boyfriend does.
The apartment where he slept for 16 years — where his mother and sister still reside — including the room where he keeps his old army gear, his stacks of high school report cards, and a fading poster of Angelina Jolie, are all a two-minute drive from where a bus has just exploded. My phone is still frozen and Shira is crowing victoriously from the kitchen table. R-O-L-L-E-R-S-K-A-T-E-S. Twelve points.
My boyfriend Yaniv works in technical support in Petach Tikva. Last summer, after a year of fitful adventures in online dating, I had dwindling expectations that I’d ever meet someone worth staying in Israel for. I was halfheartedly entertaining job prospects on three different continents the night he first asked me to dinner.
After a futile, 30-minute search for parking in his mother’s screechy white Suzuki, I was ready to suggest an alternative date, but he stubbornly persisted until we squeezed into the last remaining space in the port’s parking lot. I was unsure, but his wide smile, generous laughter, and warm, perfectly-toasted-marshmallow skin eventually thawed my cynicism. Nowadays, he makes me eggs every morning and playfully chases me around the apartment we share.
The WhatsApp icon finally submits to my nervous pecking, and I fire off a quick message:
“Honey, there was a bomb or something on a bus in bat yam. Bus 142. They are shutting down all entrances to bat yam.”
“Yeah I read something about it.”
“ L ”
Just as I set down my phone, Shira’s mother Rachel comes bustling through the door, arms full of party hats, bags of bamba, and party decorations for her four-year-old daughter’s birthday celebration at preschool next week. As she flutters around the kitchen putting things away, she and Shira speak together in rapid-fire Hebrew, a language I still only speak with shy, bumbling inadequacy. After cooing over her daughter’s crookedly scrawled English homework, she turns to me.
“How are you, Jennifer?” She pronounces the “r” in my name with a typical Israeli purr.
“Something happened in Bat Yam.”
Rachel recognizes the tone in my voice. She is a dusty blonde, soft-spoken, and perpetually distracted psychotherapist with two jobs and two children, but she, like nearly every Israeli over the age of 18, knows how to fire an M-16. She has served in the Israeli military, just as her daughters will when they graduate high school. In her lifetime, Israel has seen roughly ten recognized wars and operations. She knows what “something” means. She glances at me.
“B-O-M-B,” I mouth soundlessly over her seven-year-old’s head.
“No.” Not this time.
She turns to the sink full of dishes as Shira erupts into a fit of giggles watching Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video for the thousandth time. We don’t say any more about it as Rachel hastily packs her daughters’ sack lunches, because it doesn’t matter. Whoever placed a duffel bag containing a crockpot of explosives on the bus has not been found, and nobody has claimed responsibility. Nobody was hurt this time, so it’s unlikely to make the international news. We’ll never know who did it. We probably won’t even remember this particular attack in a week, or a month, or a year. It’s just another thin layer of anxiety, another small trauma, and another day in Israel.
Note: Personal names in this story have been changed.