Residents of Tel Aviv have 90 seconds after the alarms sound to locate the nearest public shelter. It happens once a day, maybe twice, timed before the morning or evening news.
The first time the sirens go off, you have just returned from the beach—a first date. You almost miss the last bus of the afternoon for the parting kiss and you jump illegally through the back door; the bus driver does not see you in his rearview mirror. On the bus you sit next to someone you know and you talk about politics; you tell him that in the future you see only hope. You are so angry that he disagrees that when you get off the bus at the same stop you speed up and walk ten steps ahead. It happens while you’re in your apartment, and over the sound of the hairdryer you mistake the rising, high-pitched drone for an ambulance alarm, or nearby construction work.
Remain in the shelter for ten minutes after the alarms cease. Locals say you can leave when you hear “the boom,” the sound of the Iron Dome intercepting missiles overhead. You will see it, once, from the balcony, a condensed stream of bright yellow against the black sky, the way you might have imagined Halley’s Comet.
The second time it happens, you are on the bus, legally this time, on the way to work. The bus driver stops and he and you and the other passengers shuffle into a nearby stairwell, some stranger’s home. There is a plant with browning leaves on the windowsill and the walls are in poor repair; you share the space with a uniformed soldier, another American tourist, and an Israeli couple. You see a cockroach and you scream and jump. The soldier gets ready to step on it but it’s already dead, its large torso nearly broken in two.
In fortified buildings, locate the room on your floor with a number ending in “01.” In unfortified buildings, take shelter in the stairwell. Highway travellers should exit their vehicles and lie down with their heads covered at a distance of 100 meters.
The third time it happens, or maybe the fourth, or the fourteenth—you have lost track by now—it’s 6:30 in the morning and you are alone in the shelter with two Tel Aviv University students who are passionately kissing on the stairs. She has long black hair that obstructs his face; you are wearing pajama shorts and a t-shirt with the name of your freshman dorm across your chest. You wonder whether they’ve just woken up or hadn’t yet gone to bed, and you wonder whether they resent the sirens for interrupting their romance or whether they’re thrilled by the danger.
In between sirens you read the news; you download the RedAlert app and it rings every time a siren goes off somewhere in Israel—this becomes so bothersome that you eventually delete it. You view photos of devastation in Gaza on CNN and the BBC sites; later you find out that some of the BBC photos are miscaptioned images from Iraq and Syria, but the eyes of a dead Palestinian boy are real. You read a thousand op-eds decrying these actions and another thousand defending them. You read a thousand inaccurate statistics and biased narratives, and everywhere you go the news plays on a TV in the background; you do not speak the language but there is a certain rhythm to the spaces between the few words you understand; “Hamas,” “Netanyahu,” “Ashkelon.”
Walk--don’t run--to your designated shelter. In the South, an old woman overexerts herself and dies of a heart attack. The French customers at your favorite café will slouch in, their cigarette smoke filling the small space, eerily like the aftermath of an explosion.
A few days before you leave the country, it happens while you’re in 301 with a friend, so you just stay seated on her couch while she fills two glasses of water from the kitchen sink. She works at a camp for children with cerebral palsy. Some of the children there cannot speak, and they have tablets that can play various sound effects. Over and over for the past month, she tells you as she balances the lukewarm glass between her knees, the youngest children have been using the effect that sounds like a high-pitched siren, the kind you might mistake for an ambulance alarm.
At home, when your friends ask, “What was it like?” you do not know how to respond. You read a New York Times story about a young Palestinian runner in training for the 2016 Olympics, his home, his shoes, his trophies destroyed by Israeli fire. You read an Atlantic article about anti-Israel protesters in Germany shouting “Jews to the gas!”
One day you are sitting at the desk in your dorm room, and you hear a loud, rising, high-pitched noise. This time, it is an ambulance alarm or construction work, but without thinking you feel yourself rising a little from your chair, waiting to hear “the boom.”