[February Short Story Contest Winner] Sirens by Lindsey B.

Thank you to everyone who submitted work for the February Short Story Contest. The winning entry is:

Sirens by Lindsey B.

Lindsey’s entry was in response to the writing prompt: Unconventional Love. I enjoy the double meaning of the title.

Please Enjoy

Sirens

Even in my boyfriend’s shower, I don’t take off all my makeup. Don’t get me wrong, I still get clean. I wash off the concealer under my eyes and my blush. I even use my index finger and thumb to pinch off some of the non waterproof mascara. That’s a product that needs to be reapplied to get the proper effect. I lather the facewash on my cheeks, chin, and forehead, and of course, I wash my hair, and shave my legs etcetera, but I almost always leave a faint filament of eyeliner on my upper lids.

Securing slipping makeup onto perspiring features is challenging. No windows in that bathroom, and I make it my mission to come out of there with a proper face and outfit. I’d like to look this good all the time, but almost as good is him thinking I do. I find the application is easier, quicker, if I already have the most important part, my eyes, partially done. Think of it like an incomplete retaining wall, or some of the letters on a neon sign already lit. Of course, there is always the chance that my boyfriend might come into the bathroom while I’m showering. When that happens, I feel almost smug in my foresight: he’s spared my naked eyes at first, but in that wet ending I’ll have to start the eyeliner from scratch.

If I really want to clean everything, eyeliner and all, I have to wait to jump into his shower when he’s at the office. I flip on the water heater at least 20 minutes before, and then I can scrub my face off to my heart’s content, until the hot water runs out. Because of the water shortage though, I hurry anyway. Only when he’s gone can I get out of the shower, get dressed and apply makeup anywhere in the apartment without the time pressure of the hot bathroom or my boyfriend seeing behind the curtain. Although I am adept, even in that bathroom, at simultaneously making myself up, toweling off, and upholstering myself with a modestly provocative outfit chosen earlier from my suitcase, it’s a treat to do the routine in the peace of my own company, like taking an untimed test that I’m well prepared for.

Though I often study from his apartment while he’s at work, I rarely have the inclination to shower midday. I used to shower after a run, which I would take preferably in the evening as the summer heat would start to dissipate and the sun would crawl toward the Mediterranean. I would jog through the streets, never taking the same route twice. I liked looking at the salt-damaged apartment buildings, sixties architecture mixing with newer buildings, cats sauntering between chairs at sidewalk cafes. I would run rhythmically, panting, tight chested, listening to yoga podcasts. We’re not allowed to run anymore. Anxiety, like the war, is no longer maintained beneath the surface.

With the war, my university attendance has become spotty. Classes continue, my favorite campus bakery still serves hot dripping pain au chocolate, and the fluorescent pink, orange, and purple Bougainvillea flowers still spill over walls like overpermed 80s rockstars. The people carry on as always, and my recent preference to stay indoors is my tell that I am not from here.

When I do ride the bus to campus, I scan the scene with military precision, but stripped of power. Another suspicious looking man climbs deliberately onto the bus. Will he be the one? He looks like one of them. Or one of us. The way he gazes at his phone though, clears him. The man is too disengaged to be strapped with explosives. If these were the last moments of his earthly life, and if he were wasting those precious last breaths of air looking at his mobile device, he would probably be reviewing instructions or typing intently to his family or social media followers. Unlikely that he’d be playing Snake absentmindedly. Danger averted.

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I always sit next to other women anyway though. It’s far from a sure bet, but it seems like a statistically astute move at least in the case the fighter had a knife instead of explosives. For obvious reasons, I must eventually turn my thoughts to my homework, which is both boring and hard to do on the bumpy ride, or my boyfriend, who is very handsome.

I do not like the commute anymore, and I have not liked rushing to the bomb shelter with my classmates multiple times a day or speaking about the war in a foreign language. When the sirens go off, there is a protocol. Everyone walks briskly or runs to a designated shelter. Every building has at least one. There is no shame in running, which is incongruous from otherwise acceptable daily behavior during the war. Once in the shelter, you listen for the boom. Sometimes it shakes the building; other times it’s faint, like a more substantial heartbeat. After that, you wait another minute for falling debris. The sirens are so accurate that they only ring for the particular neighborhood in the rocket’s path, not for the whole city. When you hear that high pitched wail, it’s personal.

Every person in the country must stifle his or her emotions into the appropriate range. Crying, fear, declining invitations – none of these would be patriotic behaviors. Likewise expressions of icarian joy aren’t appropriate when our boys are dying; getting engaged would be in poor taste. Laughing and jokes are fine, but only with close friends. Bars and coffee shops are open, but watch for suspicious loiterers, and always make sure you know where the bomb shelter is. I prefer house parties to bars; always, but now in particular.

Before he gets home from work, I like to sit on my boyfriend’s balcony and talk to friends back home. As the soldier sun begins his retreat, stunning orange and purple sparkles in the water’s mirror. I hear sirens in different parts of the city, rockets coming for someone else. So my friends back home shouldn’t worry, I tell them I might have to hang up suddenly, and that if it happens, I’ll call them back. I don’t say it would be because of an attack.

The first time I heard the siren go off was before the ground invasion; my boyfriend and I were walking at night. There had been raids after the kidnappings, vigils and arrests. The air was dense with nationalism and resigned anticipation, but you could still jog outdoors or meander, hands in each other’s pockets. We were near the garish fountain, talking, looking into the night sky. Two stars shooting. “Run.” Hand in hand we raced away. The siren moaned, and he pulled me into an Italian restaurant. Before we descended the stairs to the storage room, the ground shook, and we steadied ourselves against giant cans of olives, continuing downward. Once in the shelter, quiet. Some patrons checked phones. My boyfriend asked if I was scared. I shrugged because there is no right answer for that. He pulled me close, and the thrill of the danger and the smell of him were almost unbearable. After the wait, he asked if I wanted to stay and split Tiramisu. “Yes.” During the days I try to study but end up mostly refreshing news sites and composing posts agreeing or arguing with the more rational extremists. Sirens go off four or five times a day, but in the south it’s sometimes a hundred rockets. Our geography means when the sirens ring, we have about 30 seconds to get to shelter before the explosion, and in my boyfriend’s apartment, the shelter is in the stairwell. I get to know the neighbors by face. A couple in their forties, an elderly Russian woman who always wears house

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dresses and plastic sandals, a strikingly calm mother with her silent sad toddler. None of us speak to each other though, except as we leave, we deliver casual, friendly have-a-good-days.

Back in the apartment, I make myself useful. I squeegee wash the floor and watch the bubbly gray water swirl inevitably down the drain. I make salad, rice, and chicken for dinner on the stovetop since I can’t figure out my boyfriend’s oven. Exhilaration alternates with mind numbing waiting and it seeps into my skin and dries me out from the inside. 

Sunset on the balcony, and my boyfriend texts that he’s biking home from his office and would I like to go to a friend’s for dinner? The world is in color again. Forty minutes. I flip on the water heater, drop dinner into tupperware, and choose an outfit. Twenty minutes. Water runs down my face, my shoulders, stomach, legs. I arch my back in a stretch. Bubbles mixing with facewash, I close my eyes and rub off all of my makeup.

Like a whimper the lament starts, and I step out of the shower naked.

 

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Previous Winning Stories:

[December Short Story Contest Winner] Been There, Not Doing That by Ellen Scolnic and Joyce Eisenberg

Thank you to everyone who submitted work for the December Short Story Contest. The winning entry is: Been There, Not Doing That by Ellen Scolnic and Joyce Eisenberg Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic write, speak, blog and tweet together as The Word Mavens. They’ve been award-winning writing partners for 20 years – dispensing their advice […]

[January Short Story Contest Winner] My Joe: A Reflection by Phyllis Babrove

Thank you to everyone who submitted work for the December Short Story Contest. The winning entry is: My Joe: A Reflection by Phyllis Babrove Phyllis Babrove, a semi¬retired clinical social worker, has resided in Florida since moving there as a newlywed from Wisconsin forty-six years ago. She likes to travel with her husband and has […]

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