Yair Assulin’s new novel (published by New Vessel Press) tells the journey of a young Israeli soldier, accompanied by his father, on a drive to meet with a military psychiatrist because he can no longer tolerate army life. The following is an exclusive excerpt for Tel Aviv Review of Books:
The car coasted along the empty highway to the Mental Health Officer at Tel Hashomer Hospital. “Tell me what you want,” Dad had said the night before, in tears, after I’d cried for perhaps an hour without stopping and said I couldn’t go on, that I felt as if I were suffocating, that I’d rather die than go back to the base. “Just tell me what you want,” he repeated, “what do you want to do? What do you want to happen?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I don’t know, I really don’t. I just know that I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want to.”
“But what is it that’s so terrible there?” he asked for the millionth time since I’d first cried over the phone, and I knew that someone looking from the outside could not even begin to comprehend the suffocation that filled me each time I took the train to the base, the insurmountable pain I felt when I walked through those gates, the fear of something I cannot describe or define, the horribly cramped sensation that was unrelated to anything, certainly not to a particular place or space. Again I told him that I was miserable. Again I told him that I felt I was losing myself. A few days earlier I’d told him I wanted to jump in front of oncoming traffic. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted some time off, a little time to calm down.
Now I remember that picture clearly, of how I stood on the side of the dilapidated road outside the base and there was mud everywhere. I remember the headlights of a distant car approaching, and the feeling that this time I was serious, this time I was really going to do it. I remember the voices in my head that told me I’d already said that so many times, and I remember the insistence in my mind that this time I had no choice, I was going to jump, and even if I died I didn’t care. Then I envisioned Mom and Dad’s faces, and I heard Mom’s voice, which had been slightly high-pitched when I’d called a few days or a week earlier and burst into tears when I said I couldn’t take it anymore.
I was on a different base then, near Nablus. The whole unit was on that base, which was full of tents and surrounded by giant concrete walls, long lines of massive gray blocks. I walked around for a week feeling as if I were going to suffocate. All I wanted to do was shut my eyes and sleep. It was winter and the work was exhausting: sitting in the war room listening to the phone. It wasn’t dangerous, I know, not dangerous like driving in the middle of the night in a black Audi to arrest a wanted person in a village, or like sitting at a lookout post in the middle of nowhere when someone could put a bullet through your head at any minute, or like actually fighting in Lebanon or Gaza. But for me, it was soul-crushing. It wasn’t just the work but all the people who hung around those big rooms full of telephones and supposedly important conversations, and the horrible feeling that you were insignificant. That you were nothing. That you were but one more instrument on the desk, like the pen or the computer or the old, encoded phones. Sometimes I had the feeling that I wasn’t even an instrument, that in fact I hardly existed, that I had to do everything for someone who did everything for someone who did everything for someone, and sometimes I had the feeling that the ladder never ended but merely branched out endlessly and reeked and grew mold and became caked with mud.
That was how I felt on that base, but I know that even that doesn’t explain the phone call when I could no longer suppress my sobs as soon as I heard my mother ask how I was. Up until then I kept trying to sound as if everything was fine, there was no problem, I was doing all right. And that definitely was not a reason I could give Dad when he asked me, “What’s so bad there?” Because even that didn’t explain why things were so bad for me there—not the reeking ladder that never ended or the fact that I wasn’t important and didn’t exist, not even the dreadful fact that I did not have my own regular bed on that base, that a few of us shared what was called a “whore bed,” and every morning I had to strip my sheets off and shove them under the bunk bed in the big green dusty bag we were given at the induction center. Or that after a night shift I had to wait for someone to get up so that I could get some sleep until they came to wake me up and tell me I’d slept enough, or in fact not even wake me, because I was usually awake already and lying in bed with my eyes closed just to steal a few more moments of quiet, a few seconds in which I could think about Ayala, for example, and remember how a few weeks ago we’d had a wonderful conversation after we hadn’t talked for a while, or to think about the argument I’d had with Dror and about how I was right—to reanalyze the logic of my position and verify that I really was right. That was probably also not the reason for the phone call that dropped us into the whirlwind that eventually saved my life.
And yes, I know that every soldier goes through similar things at one time or another, and there are some who go through much worse, and there are even some who are going through similar things right now, as I write these words in a quiet room, with a Schubert sonata for violin and piano playing in the background. But when your soul hurts—and in those days it hurt more than I had ever imagined it could, and it kept on hurting more and more—all this knowledge about other people and other pain makes no difference and offers no relief.
In the end I didn’t jump. Something gripped me by the calves and would not let me take that leap forward. I remember standing as the car passed me and kept going, unaware of the enormous role it would have been destined to play had I jumped. Then I thought about this matter of fate, and about how if I had jumped I might have died, and the driver might have gone to prison without truly being at fault.
I imagined the face of an army driver I knew. I imagined him as the driver of the car that had just gone by, and I imagined that I had jumped and he’d hit me. I imagined his face when he got out of the car to see what he’d hit, and his mouth opening to shout for help. I imagined his face at the inquiry and then in court, and I remembered a Rashi parable about an accidental murderer and a malicious murderer and how everything in the world falls into place, because “a reward shall be brought about by a meritorious person and a debt by the debtor,” but I couldn’t decide if by me not jumping, thereby preventing him from hitting me, he would end up with merit or debt. All these musings went through my mind in no longer than a few seconds, because immediately afterward, when I realized that now I had to go back to the barracks full of pathetic soldiers and officers who only cared about covering their own asses, I was once again flooded with that terrible feeling of suffocation and shortness of breath, and I prayed that another car would go by, but none did, the road remained dark. I headed back toward the barracks. I think it started raining and I hid under the asbestos shelter of a weapons depot
In fact I never shared the preoccupation with these things called “army” and “values,” or with the dubious glory of “defending the homeland.” It is true that when I was a boy I liked to picture myself as a magnificent warrior with a hefty body, and I even imagined recounting to everyone at Friday night dinners what we’d done that week, or not recounting but sitting there proudly silent so that everyone would understand that “there are things best left unsaid.” When I forecasted my own death and how the army notification officer would come knock on the door, I enjoyed watching the sorrow fill Mom’s eyes and fill me with stupid conceit until she yelled at me to stop. But when I got older it simply passed, the way all kinds of childish thoughts you don’t fully understand pass. That was before I really knew what the army was and what the whole story was. I understood all the clichés people used to explain it, but I no longer believed in them. And because I was no longer part of the military story by the time I got to high school, when everyone talked about commando units and how they were working out so they’d be ready for service—some kids didn’t just talk but went running on the beach or did all kinds of treks with weights strapped to their legs “to improve endurance”—I looked down on it, and I said I was positive the army knew how to prepare its soldiers and there was nothing stupider than starting military service before it really started. But even though I’d always known that the whole business with the army and values and defending your homeland was a big show, it was only in the car that day, when the two of us were driving to the MHO, while Dad searched for a pen in the ashtray next to the gearshift to write something down about a postponed meeting, did it suddenly become very clear to me, clearer than all the times I had considered it previously, that no one really believed in those lofty concepts, and that all the talk about protecting the homeland and giving back to the country was the empty rhetoric of people seeking respect.