The Absolute Antithesis of Lightness
by Megan Peck Shub
We were kids. We were idiots, even Daniel, who was less of an idiot, but an idiot, nonetheless. We were soldiers.
We were working for the propaganda department of the Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. Our military service was mandatory, and none of us drank the Spokesperson’s Kool-Aid, although I’ve heard we should retire that phrase, given its partially inaccurate reference to a massacre, which is not exactly something to joke about. (On the other hand, one could argue that a bit of levity now and then helps us cope with the relentless horrors this world has to offer.)
We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, but we couldn’t actively hate ourselves every second for doing what we did, either. We had to let ourselves forget sometimes—otherwise our brains would liquify and our skulls would become little seas of pink sludge. We had to get through each day, one after the other. I don’t know if that makes sense. These days it’s impossible for me to tell anything decisively.
Anyway, there were many soldiers in “The Unit,” (that’s what we called it, kind of a joke based on the unofficial title of a much more dangerous and impressive unit. If you are impressed by danger—again, I don’t know anything anymore) but I had a few close comrades. There was a director, a video editor, and me, a photographer. Then there was Daniel, the post-production manager. He was in charge. We worked together in a shitty office building in central Tel Aviv, not far from what is now known as the Sarona market, an upscale shopping and dining complex where you can buy frozen yogurt on property that was previously a military base and—prior to that—a German Templar colony.
Minus Daniel, we left the office one day for lunch, and off we marched to the pet store. Our mission was a calculated act of rebellion: buying a hamster for the office. The genesis of the idea is lost to me now, but it may have originated with Tamar, the editor, who wore her bangs cut blunt like Betty Page and was prone to behaving oddly for attention. (She later married a psychotic cryptocurrency millionaire, which I’m sure suits her well.)
“Left. Left. Left. Right. Left,” Sammy hollered, shooing sidewalk pedestrians out of the way. “Official military business here, folks.” (More about Sammy in a second).
I’ll never forget the smell when we walked into that pet store, it hit you like a ton of bricks. A cliché, I know. The power of the metaphor has eroded from overuse, but think about a mason pouring the individual brick rectangles, letting them dry beneath the sun, stacking them up, and then toppling a great deal of them over onto your body all at once.
The pet shop bummed me out, so I turned around and waited outside while they picked out the hamster. It was a sunny day, I remember, and unusually cool for July. Deceptively lovely. It often feels like bad things can’t happen on beautiful days, but oh, they can, and they do.
They came out of the store, Sammy wielding the cage with the pride of a child showing off his new birthday present. Tamar said, “Congratulations, you are now proud co-owner of a Hamster named Serge Gainsbourg,” which is exactly the same line she delivered to Daniel when we returned to the office. There he sat behind his computer, that puzzled crease between his eyes indicating bewilderment that we could be such dumbasses.
“Kind of a pretentious name,” Daniel said, yanking his laptop cord out of the wall and toting it into one of the editing rooms, the one with the broken door handle. Every time we opened the door, the handle fell off. Clunk. Nobody ever fixed it. “I’m trying to work here,” he said. Clunk again.
We pushed past with the cage and the shopping bags full of pet stuff—a bag of extra wood chips and a bunch of plastic crap. Feeling benevolent, Sammy had purchased extra gadgets for the hamster’s cage.
“Can you imagine living in a space this small?” Sammy said, and some bystanders grumbled about the size of their apartments. Then, winking at the caged animal, he said, “Hey, are you looking at me, buddy? I guess I have a captive audience.” Sammy was always trying to make people laugh, his success largely dependent on the proportion of intoxicants in his system, until a certain point, of course. After the army, he ended up in bad shape. Then better shape. Then bad shape again. I think he’s currently doing okay to medium-okay. Sammy is like a steak off my father-in-law’s grill: never cooked quite right.
“I never had a hamster, but I had a rat,” said Bart Pachevsky. Bart was a 65-year-old civilian who came into the office ad hoc to produce commemorative videos for special occasions—retiring officers, dedications, these kinds of inane festivities. The videos were amazing and terrible simultaneously. Every one of them (Every. Single. Video.) used the same Tina Turner song, the one with the line going “you’re simply the best…” God, I can’t hear that song without thinking of Bart and his big, white moustache. One day Daniel said to Bart, “How can they all be the best? The best, by definition, involves a singular entity,” and Bart took the question seriously. He did this thing where his eyeballs fluttered upward like the glass marbles stuck into the sockets of a toy doll.
“I’m just trying to make people happy,” Bart declared. “Show me one other person in this shitbox who can say the same. I don’t get it with you kids. When I was your age, we wanted to be happy.”
(Two other things about Bart. First, he’d eat pomegranates like apples, the seeds flying everywhere. You had to duck. Second, he always wore his sunglasses inside the office. I swear, he thought he was one rung below Martin Scorsese. When he died, Tamar told me she couldn’t attend his funeral because she’d be laughing too hard.)
Daniel came back out of the editing room. Clunk. “This is explicitly forbidden,” he said, staring at the animal uneasily, angling his neck like he was shaking out a crick. “You should call him the Hamster of Defiance.”
“As I said, his name is Serge Gainsbourg,” Tamar said. She was the only one lacking a slight fear of Daniel, although “fear” is not the right word. Back then, I thought it was fear, but time, like handfuls of slack thrown into a rope, has allowed the freedom of movement to explore. To reevaluate. Now, I see Daniel’s power over us as more like a borderline unhealthy respect. Unhealthy in the sense that we bent over backwards quite often, all to satisfy the principle that rigorous work for the propaganda arm of a military force was what we should do because we had enlisted to do it. But our service was mandatory; we didn’t need to bust our asses like we did. That was all Daniel. To be clear: he didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. He didn’t work so hard because he was devoted to the IDF, he did it because he was devoted to doing everything he did to the absolute finest extent. It was impossible for him to subjugate that drive to any other.
Well, the rest of us had lower standards. We were sloppier. Less clear-eyed about seeing our work as a practice applicable to our personal creative endeavors. Inspiration would strike us, we thought, rather than us striking it. We saw ourselves as precious artists destined for futures of pure, unfettered creative freedom. Nowadays, I work in a law office. But Daniel went into advertising and makes the big bucks.
“I’ll call him the Hamster of Defiance anyway,” Daniel said, adjusting his beret. That was another thing about him: he always wore the beret. At some point, he decided this was going to be his quirk. Nobody wore the beret—we wore them tucked into this little loop on the shoulders of our uniforms. Sometimes they fell out and it was stressful because you knew somebody would eventually yell at you about it. I never liked people yelling at me. My wife says I am “extremely sensitive,” which, as a man, feels unflattering. (The older I get, the less evolved I am.)
“What about naming it ‘Miri Regev?’” Sammy said, eliciting some frowns from the neighboring faces. Miri was the Spokesperson. She had the kind of voice that sounded—at any given moment—like she was screaming out her order at a falafel stand.
“Have some respect,” Bart said, and everyone snickered.
“I don’t see how this is going to end well,” Daniel said. I was looking straight at the hamster when he said it, too. I remember. He was a fat little blob, smaller than my palm, his fur the color of a tarnished silver coin. He was scurrying through a tube of transparent plastic. It sounds ridiculous, but I think the hamster really liked that cage, at least for the short time he lived there.
Of course, the day after we got the hamster, shit hit the fan in Lebanon, and everyone had to pack their bags and go. It was bad enough that Bart’s commemorative video project was frozen, and that says a lot in Israel, a country at war 100% of the time.
We weren’t thinking about the hamster when we were in the field. I was over the border in a helmet and flak jacket thinking, hey, if I shit myself, how badly will it show through these pants? Our unit was full of asthmatics and head cases and kids with fancy parents. I was frankly surprised to find myself in a war zone. Even in a country at war 100% of the time, you don’t always read the fine print. (Actually, as someone who manages a law office, I can tell you that it’s only the most insufferable nerds who do.)
I spent my last 24 hours of that particular segment of war standing on a ship, hovering over my camera’s viewfinder, a blanket tossed over my head to cover the stench of the marijuana I smoked. I needed to calm myself. At one point I learned that one of my friends had been killed. A helicopter crash. I heard the news even before his family did. It felt like swallowing a lump of lead. I’m sorry, I don’t have a good metaphor. Some things defy metaphors. Let’s say it felt like the absolute antithesis of lightness.
Eventually I needed to get my hard drives back to the office. I barged in at four o’clock in the morning. Daniel was the only one of my buddies ever in the office that early in the morning. I think I first went there instead of home because I wanted to see him, I needed to. I migrated toward his presence because I knew it’d always be the same: slightly gruff, yet not entirely unkind. When he’d ask you how you were doing, you got the sense he wouldn’t mind hearing the real answer. He was one year older than me, but there was something pleasantly wizened about him. Maybe it was the premature baldness blighting the otherwise golden crown of his skull. As I dumped my equipment cases on my desk, I heard him rustling around in the editing room.
“He’s dead,” Daniel said, poking his head out of the door, and I thought he was talking about my friend.
Daniel nodded toward the cage on Tamar’s desk. “Nobody was around to feed and water him.”
I looked through the metal bars and saw the hamster’s small body, a lump lying within a sea of wood chips. I wondered where those chips were from, which forest. How many rings were in the tree trunk. I considered how the tree had synthesized various proteins to morph into what trees usually are: tall, formidable things. (I think that’s how it works. Don’t quote me on that.)
“Shit,” I said. And then “fuck” for more emphasis.
Later, we’d put the hamster in the freezer and bury him beside an old Templar building, a mock military funeral. All of us wore our berets. In my palm, his body felt like a cotton ball. His decomposition must’ve been quick—even his bones. They were probably thinner than toothpicks.
“We’re idiots,” Daniel said. The phone at his desk started ringing, but he ignored it. He slapped my back, and my face fell into my hands. Face, hands—everything in that general vicinity got wet, like I’d been sprayed with my mother’s garden hose. Tears. What a strange sensation it was to cry. I don’t do it often, not even when each of my children was born, which always felt too momentous to process as it happened. It was much later that I would cry over them, on ordinary days, run-of-the mill occasions, like when I’d look at them in their sleep and feel smacked. Punched. Kicked in the ribs.
A ton of bricks hitting all at once—that was what I said earlier. Inelegantly, perhaps, but I said it. That’s about 500 bricks, I Googled it. That’s heavy.
Think about that for a second. Better yet, don’t. We already have so much to think about.
No wonder we’re never really happy anymore.
Megan Peck Shub is a producer at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Her work has appeared/is forthcoming in the Missouri Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Maudlin House, New York Magazine, Peach Mag, and X-R-A-Y. She is a contributing editor at Story magazine.
Image: Henry Lai/Unsplash