I’ve had Insomnia throughout my teenage years. I’d close my eyes and wait for sleep but it wouldn’t come, so Insomnia became my friend. We would read, watch late-night TV, look at the first morning light.
I’ve had sleepless nights during my military service, too. I needed more time to be myself, lying awake in bed, before I wear my uniform and ice-cold dog-tag and go. In the first weeks I sometimes wake up startled, checking the time, afraid I’ve overslept. One time I wake up in the middle of the night, finding myself standing next to my bed and trying to put on my beige uniform pants.
I walk into the Hakirya base in Tel-Aviv for the first time.
I was born and raised in Tel-Aviv. Having lived in the center of this bustling city and seeing it all, it was always odd to know there is one place, so close to home, that is out of limits for me. Always seeing Hakirya from outside, I was curious to see what’s inside.
As it turned out, I didn’t miss much. Buildings, small roads, a basketball court. I found the navy headquarters easily and walked inside. It’s a simple, H shaped building, with a small yard. There’s a reception desk, some flags, a huge HD picture of sea and ships on one wall, big glass doors leading to the yard. Elevators, one staircase going up and another going down. Some halls, decorated with pictures of the Mediterranean and navy symbols.
I find the human resource office and wait outside, together with other newly recruited material – some other girls who were drafted the same day as I did, including the geek I met on the first day, who sits next to me. We need to pass the time somehow so I doodle in my notebook. She sees that and asks if I know what Manga is.
This is going to be a long day.
Hours pass, and girls are called into the room one by one. I look at the people who walk in the halls, trying to imagine myself within them. When the soldiers in the HR office go to their lunch break, I just walk around and explore. I look at the small yard which looks well-tended, with some flags on one side and a huge blue anchor on the other. I look at the smoking area, and at the tiny P.X store right outside the building. Then I go back to the office and wait outside.
They finally call me in. It is a cramped and messy office with two soldiers and a Lieutenant, all male. They tell me I need to salute, but I know they’re just messing with me. After a brief chat, the officer says I am posted in the human resource unit and tells me where my office is.
I walk there, rather fearful, and gently knock on the door.
My office-mate and best friend for the next two years is Katja. She was recruited three months before me, meaning we have a long time to spend together. The first time I see her, she’s back from the infirmary with a bandage on her finger – her medical emergency was a papercut. She’s a hilarious kid, unable to sit in one place for too long, always looking for a distraction and whispering in my ear her funny insights about those in charge of us. She’s the complete opposite of the stuck-up officers and the gloomy computer screens with the Excel worksheets. During the long winter that follows that summer, we are each other’s reminder of a life outside the military offices, holding onto one another like a lifeboat on a cold, stormy night.
On my first day she shows me around, obviously grateful to be anywhere but seated in front of the computer. She takes me to places I should know, shows me where to get office supplies, where the IT department is, tells me about guard and kitchen duties.
She introduces me to her friends, Ran and Moshe. They work on the second floor, a bunch of guys who listen to hip-hop and reggae in their messy office. They always have something to snack, always have a funny story to tell. Moshe is a big guy with a rumbling voice and hearty laughter, while Ran is slim and tall, always has a funny remark. They are the perfect distraction.
Every day by noon, Moshe and Ran come to our office to take us for lunch. We can choose whether we sit in the main dining hall, or go to the smaller one where you can get a salad or a sandwich. On Tuesdays they serve fried chicken in the dining hall so we go, but on the rest of the week we get sandwiches and eat them at a plot of grass near the navy building.
This daily hour in the grass and the sun is so sweet, it feels illegal. Sometimes Moshe brings a frisbee to play with, other times we just lay on our backs and look at the sun peeping from above the treetops. There’s a stray dog roaming around, a golden terrier, who becomes our best friend once we gain her trust.
It’s hard to go back to work after the lunch break. I am jealous of the stray dog and the cats who get to stay there.
And there’s the job we do. Like two children who are being punished, Katja and I need to restrain our teenage energies and do the tedious job of maintaining endless Excel tables with the names of anybody who’s ever been in the navy. I wouldn’t mind it if it wasn’t for the officers in charge of us.
The hierarchy is obviously very clear – there’s a Lieutenant above us, and a Major above them. At first, it seems like everything will be fine. the Lieutenant is a gentle, sensitive young woman, who is quick to recognize my shyness and work around it. The Major is a charismatic man with a handsome face and silver hair.
Unfortunately, soon they both move to other postings.
The new Lieutenant is a terrified 19 years old guy, fresh out of officer training. Anything he lacks in leadership, he fills up with senseless orders and unnecessary hardness. In short, he’s a bully.
The Major is a cliche of a wannabe sexy businesswoman. With zero joy in life, she tiptoes into and out of the office, always unpleased, yelling at the Lieutenant who then yells at us.
Our office must seem comic to our colleagues.
In the first few days, I find it hard to distinguish between the soldiers. It seems like there are only two kinds of people – those who wear beige uniforms, meaning navy or air-force, and those who wear green uniforms. Little by little, I learn to see the small personal modifications they make in their appearance, such as a tight or loose ponytail, gold or silver earrings, their backpacks, the way they walk.
I also learn how to feel more like a person. I push the boundaries of what is allowed to wear as a soldier – since big earrings are not allowed, I get small ones that shaped like skulls or spiders. I wear gentle make-up, just a black eyeliner, to remind myself of all the glitter I used to wear. On the weekends I paint my nails with vibrant colors and take it off on Saturday evenings, but leave just enough at the hard-to-reach corners of the nails. Under the uniform, I hide a huge necklace and wear the funniest, most colorful underwear, with ribbons and lace.
I can’t seem to get used to my new routine. In high school, whenever I didn’t want to go, I just didn’t go. I could skip classes and entire days without any consequences. Now every action I do seems to have results, even wearing the wrong kinds of socks.
I lose my patience as I sit long hours in front of a computer, required to stay focused as I enter data into the endless tables. Every typo matters. The Major in charge of Katja and I sometimes make us stay into the nights, even when we have nothing left to do. Our workdays last for 12, 13, 14 hours. My muscles are stiff for sitting for that long, my back hurts, and I miss sunlight.
We have guard duties as well, and since I’ve been drafted recently, I get many of them. They are very different than the quiet, peaceful ones I had in Bootcamp. Hakirya, the base I’m at, is an open base, meaning most soldiers go home after work. The girls’ dorm is a big room that smells like stale sweat, with about 12 bunk beds.
On duty days, the girls on duty need to gather by noon at the weaponry. They call us one by one to get the big ole’ M16 guns, and then we all move to the basketball court to go through the safety regulations. They assign each girl her location and shift – the more seniority you have, the better shift you get. These are 3-3 shifts, meaning 3 hours of guarding and 3 hours for sleep, twice. In some locations we guard in couples, and in some we guard alone. This whole process of preparing for the duty takes almost 4 hours, and it’s more exhausting than the duty itself.
On the first time I guard, they pair me with another newbie soldier from the air-force. There is some comfort in opening up to a complete stranger, and we talk throughout the first 3 hours. She tells me about her job, her Bootcamp, and about the people she works with. She says she likes somebody in her unit, and she thinks he likes her too. She talks about past romances, high-school boyfriends and dates.
On the second shift she is too drowsy to talk, so I wait for the sunrise and let my mind wander.
Never having a serious relationship, I feel left behind. All the other girls I know, even unattractive ones, have stories about deep, crazy love affairs, while I was always too shy to even make eye contact with my high-school crush. I’ve dated some boys, but no one seemed exciting enough.
I think about random guys I’ve met, like a bakery employee who smiled at me once as I passed by and gave me a free taste of a pastry, or a guy I saw in my yoga studio. I even think about someone I have never actually met but my sister told me about, who played The Smashing Pumpkins songs in a bar she’s been at.
I want to meet somebody. I want to love and be loved.
If there’s something good about those duties, is that we get off early the next day.
I like those mornings. We have to clean up the dorms and then go to the weaponry again, to bring back the M16’s. I usually get coffee at the P.X store on my way to the navy building, and drink it in the empty office and read my book. People start showing up for work at 8, and I get to go home before lunch hour.
Even though I never manage to sleep much in those duties, I usually just take a short nap at home, so I can enjoy the rest of the day. These times off make me feel like my old self again, little May, the introvert day-dreamer. I deeply miss that girl.
Days and weeks go by, crawling so slowly.
I wait, and count back, and wait – for the end of the day, for the end of the week, for the end of these two years. I calculate, knowing everything comes in pairs – two summers, two winters, two holidays seasons. 24 months, 712 days.
I make the decision to never settle into this, never feel too much at home.
This is temporary. temporary, temporary, temporary.
I repeat the word in my head until it loses its meaning.