By Mark Highman
“Beat the egg whites until they are light and fluffy,” I said, reading from Nigella Lawson’s cookbook. “Mom, do you think my egg whites are fluffy enough?”
I turned to my mother who stood by the stove in our micro Manhattan kitchen. “What?” I asked, noticing Mom giving me a strange look.
“Why do you stand like that?” she asked.
“Like what?” I asked, knowing exactly what she meant.
“You know, with your hand on your hip.”
I looked down, as if noticing my stance for the first time, with one hand resting on my hip while I held Nigella’s cookbook up in the other. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I like being like a tea pot. ‘Here is my handle, here is my spout, tip me over, and pour me out.’”
Mom gave me a dubious look, obviously a little concerned about why her seventeen-year-old son was singing the tea pot song.
I knew what she was thinking. I also knew that she was too scared to ask the question that was on her mind.
Are you gay?
It’s the question she’d been wanting to ask ever since I met Sam, and he had become my best friend, my best everything, really. But despite Mom’s oh-so-liberal, Upper West Side values, I could see the terror on her face as she tried to fathom the sexuality of her son.
Mom took a knife from the drawer.
“Na-ah,” I said, taking the knife from her. “That’s for meat.” I put the knife back in the cutlery drawer reserved for meat utensils. “We’re having cheese soufflé for dinner,” I said, “so you need one of these.” I handed her a knife from the drawer containing the cutlery for use with dairy meals.
My mother sighed. “Do you honestly think God cares what knives and forks we use?”
My mother was a self-proclaimed Bagel Jew, unused to the dietary restrictions I had imposed at home since I became a born-again, a ba’al teshuva.
“It’s a hevdel,” I said.
My mother gave me a mystified look.
“Okay,” I began. “You remember how I used to love a bacon cheeseburger with fries?”
“Sure. It was your big treat.”
“I still love that combination. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. But I resist because the Torah teaches us,” I paused, pulling out of my pocket a volume of the Mishnah, the principal compilation of rabbinic legal discourse, “that if we can resist the craving for forbidden food, we can resist other cravings, too.”
“What other cravings?”
“You know,” I said vaguely, placing my hand back on my hip, while peering at my volume of the Mishnah.
“Hey, Mom. Have you seen my Cosmo?” my sister Suzie asked, peeking into the kitchen in her pink bathrobe, her hair covered in aluminum foil.
“Nice hat,” I said. “Very shiny.”
Suzie gave me a “you’re so immature” look. At sixteen, Suzie was one year my junior, but firmly believed she was far more grown-up than her “weird” brother. “It’s a treatment,” she said.
“Well, I hope it works. I hear lobotomies can be quite expensive.”
Suzie did an exaggerated eye-roll, and turned back to Mom. “So, Mom. Have you seen my Cosmo?”
“I haven’t got it, sweetheart. I don’t read Cosmo,” Mom replied.
“Then where is it?”
“I threw it away,” I piped up.
“You what?!” Suzie glared at me.
I fixed her with an even look. “It’s disgusting. ‘Fifty positions to please your man.’ It’s legitimized pornography.”
“That’s my magazine, asshole.” She swiped the volume of the Mishnah from my hands.
“Hey, give that back,” I cried, trying to grab the book from her. “That’s a sacred text.”
“Yeah, well, Cosmo’s my sacred text.”
She opened the trash can, about to throw my volume of the Mishnah inside.
“Suzie, stop that!” Mom intervened.
“But he threw my Cosmo away.”
“And he’s going to give you the money to buy a new one.”
“I will not.”
“Then I won’t pay for your Mishnah lesson, this week,” Mom said.
“But that’s not fair. Why should I lose a Mishnah lesson because I won’t pay for her to indulge her yetzer hora?”
“My what?!” Suzie asked.
“Your yetzer hora. Your baser instincts.”
“God, you are such a nut.”
“Me?! I’m not the one who looks like an alien,” I said, flicking Suzie’s aluminum headdress.
“Jake,” my mother chided, trying to avert an all-out fight with my sister.
“Ya’akov,” I corrected. “How many times do I have to tell you? My Hebrew name is Ya’akov, and that’s what I want you to call me.”
My mother pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to retain her composure. “Okay. Ya’akov. There’s nothing wrong with those instincts, honey. They’re perfectly natural, perfectly healthy.”
“Yes. It’s part of growing up. If you’re confused about any feelings you may be having, maybe we should sit down and talk about it.”
“No need. I already had that conversation with Dad.”
“With Dad?” My mother sounded surprised. She knew I hadn’t spoken to my father since he ran off to California two years ago to shack up with a twenty-nine-year-old version of my mother.
“Yeah. Before he left, he sat me down, and told me that he fell for Tina the first time he set eyes on her. From that moment on, he knew he had to be with her. It was as strong an instinct as the need to eat, he said, and there was nothing he could about it. So I guess, based on what you’re saying, what Dad did was perfectly natural.”
My mother’s face trembled, as if I had set off an earthquake inside her, and she was breaking apart. She excused herself, and ran off.
My sister scowled at me. “Good job, asshole.” And she ran off after my mother.
I closed my eyes, cursing myself. I clasped my hands together in prayer, asking God to forgive me for being such a hot-headed S.O.B., like my father.
I went into my bedroom, and tried to do my math homework. But I couldn’t figure out the problem any more than I could figure out how things had gotten so screwed up at home. A couple of years ago, we were a regular family, whose biggest problem was who had control of the remote on a Friday night. And then this woman came along, and Dad shot off after her, like a dog intoxicated by a scent, dropping the rest of us like we didn’t matter. Suzie, who had always been a tomboy, became obsessed with her looks and with boys, getting up at six every morning to do her Dancercise and to preen herself for school. Mom said it was a phase. But I knew that it was an attempt to secure love, the way Tina had secured Dad’s heart. Meanwhile, Mom let herself go completely, dressing in the same clothes day after day, never wearing a dab of makeup, and letting her hair turn into a greying ball, as if confirming to herself and the world why Dad had left her.
As I sat at the dinner table saying the Hamotzi blessing over a bread roll, Suzie came in, all dolled up for a night out, wearing a pair of tight jeans and sparkly low-cut top.
“You look nice, sweetheart,” my mother said.
“You’re not going to let her go out like that, are you?” I protested as Suzie sat down at the table, depositing her “Kiss Me” handbag by her side.
“Like what?” my mother asked.
“Like that,” I said, indicating my sister’s outfit. “Her whole outfit is designed to . . .”
I trailed off, not knowing exactly how to express it.
“. . . to what?” Suzie asked.
“. . . to inflame the desire of the opposite sex.”
My sister burst out laughing. “Is that what my outfit does? Inflame your desire?”
I glared at my sister. “I’m different,” I said.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“If I ever have those kind of urges,” I continued, “I look at my tzitzis.” I retrieved the white fringes that hung down by the sides of my pants. “And they remind me to stay on the Derech Y’shara, the Right Path.” To me, the tzitzis were a lifeline, something to cling to when the dark cravings rose from deep within me to consume me. Then I would look at those fringes, and remember the Torah and the commandments, and try to stay afloat until the cravings passed.
My thoughts were interrupted by a tugging feeling on my shirt.
I opened my eyes to see my sister, grabbing my tzitzis, kissing them with a look of exaggerated devotion. “Oh, I’m such a saint,” she mocked. “So virtuous.”
“Hey!” I pulled my tzizsis from Suzie’s grasp, but as I did so, my chair almost toppled over. I grabbed for the table, knocking over my silverware and my sister’s handbag, which fell to the floor, strewing its contents everywhere.
“Stop this. Both of you,” my mother scolded, as I finally righted my chair. “For once, let’s have a civilized family dinner.”
My sister glowered at me, and began picking up the contents of her bag.
As she did so, I noticed a small silver wrapper lying on the floor. I could barely believe it. But there was no doubt about it. I picked it up. “What’s this?” I asked, all innocence, holding up a condom.
My sister grabbed for it, horrified. But my mother swiped it from me first. She stared at it in disbelief.
“What’s this?” Mom asked my sister.
Suzie turned crimson. “It’s nothing.”
“It most certainly is something.”
“You see,” I chimed in. “You see what happens when you let her give into her yetzer hora.”
“Jake!” my mother silenced me. She turned back to my sister. “You’re not ready for this, honey,” Mom said, her tone more concerned than angry.
“I love Bill, Mom. It feels right.”
“It’s hormones, not love,” I said.
“What the hell do you know about love?” Suzie turned on me.
“I know love.”
“What? The love of your Mishnah?”
“I love Sam.”
My mother’s attention suddenly switched from my sister to me. “You love Sam?”
Suzie looked at me with glee, clearly delighted that I had deflected Mom’s attention from her.
I looked at my mother squarely. “Yes, Mom. I love Sam. The way David loved Jonathan.”
“David who?” Mom asked.
“David, the guy who slew Goliath,” Suzie explained. Suzie loved Bible stories almost as much as she loved Greek and Roman myths. “David was best buds with Jonathan, King Saul’s son.”
I turned to my mother. “David and Jonathan had a pure love. A true love. A love that lasted a lifetime.”
I could see my mother’s mind racing as she tried to decipher what I was trying to say about myself.
“I always thought there was something kinky between David and Jonathan,” Suzie said.
“Kinky?!” I repeated.
“Yeah. If you read between the lines, it’s fairly obvious that David and Jonathan had this rampant gay love affair when they were young,” Suzie went on matter-of-factly. “That’s why Saul was so mad at David, for corrupting his son.”
“That. . . that. . . that’s apikorsus. Sacrilege.” I was so livid, I thought I would explode.
“Hey, it’s just a story. Why are you getting so worked up?”
“It’s not just a story. It’s true. It was the greatest love there ever was. And it’s what I have with Sam.”
As I was washing the dishes after dinner, the doorbell rang.
“Can you get that?” my mother called. “I’m in the bathroom.”
I went to the front door and opened it. There, before me, stood Andrew Goldstein and his mother, Ruth.
“Oh, hello,” I said, taken off-guard at seeing this boy from school and his mother.
“Come in, come in.” It was my mother, scurrying up behind me.
Andrew strode confidently into the living room. He approached my mother and offered her his hand. “Nice to see you, Ms. Rosen,” he said, giving her a firm, manly handshake. “How are you this evening?”
“I’m very well, thank you, Andrew.” My mother practically glowed as she shook Andrew’s hand. It was clear from the sparkle in her eye that this was the kind of boy she wanted as a son. Intelligent, well-rounded, socially confident, at ease with himself and others. The polar opposite of me, her intense, obsessive, socially awkward son.
“So, what are you doing here?” I asked Andrew and his mother.
My mother gave me a strange look. Initially, I thought she was silently reprimanding me for my inhospitable tone. Then, I noticed she was indicating the pink rubber gloves that I had forgotten to take off from washing the dishes.
I raised my hands, wafting my pink fingers in the air. “Just something I like to wear around the house,” I quipped, garnering awkward looks from Andrew and his mother.
Mom went over to Andrew and put her hand on his shoulder. “Andrew has kindly offered to take you to Study Center with him.”
Study Center was a social group for liberal Jewish teens to mix and mingle and discuss socially relevant issues. Mom had been trying to get me to go to the group for months, but each time I had come up with some excuse. The idea of a teen mix-and-mingle was my idea of hell. Now, she had gone behind my back to force me to go.
As I looked at the trio of conspirators before me, I realized I was cornered. My only choice was whether to go quietly, or make a scene.
I walked over to the coat rack. Took my jacket and headed to the front door.
“Shall we?” I said, beckoning to Andrew and his mother.
“Honey,” my mother said. “You might want to take off the pink gloves.”
As Andrew’s mother drove us to the event, I could tell that Andrew was as enthusiastic about having me tag along with him, as I was to be thrust on him. Andrew wasn’t a bad guy. We co-existed perfectly well at school, both knowing that while we inhabited the same universe, we were from different planets. Now we had been thrown together against our will.
As soon as Andrew’s mother deposited us at Study Center, we went our separate ways. Andrew made his way to the front of the hall, chatting and joking with his friends, as I made my way to a secluded corner at the rear.
I sat down, and took out my copy of the Mishnah, raising it in front of me like a safety screen between me and everyone else. I peered over the top of the book, observing the interactions between the boys and girls as if I were observing animals on safari. The girls were all primped and polished, smelling of perfume and freshly washed hair. The more confident ones flirted with the boys, tossing their hair, laughing at their jokes, giving them a brush of the arm, or a playful pat on the shoulder. The boys’ eyes sparkled with eagerness as they tried to impress the girls. The more I watched, the more I felt like I had been dropped in a foreign land whose language and customs were, and always would be, completely alien to me.
I closed my eyes and tried to think of a happier image, one where I felt at home. Soon my mind filled with a picture of Sam, the first time I set eyes on him.
It was a few weeks after Dad had walked out on us. I was sitting in school, drowning in my dark thoughts, when the principal entered and announced that a new boy was joining our class.
I looked up and saw Sam enter. He had thick, black hair and dark, intense eyes. He wore a big velvet yarmulke. His tzitzis wafted loosely about his thighs. Light poured in from the corridor, shrouding him in a golden glow. He looked other-worldly, like a prophet from another time.
“This is Sam,” the principal said.
Whether everyone was taken aback by Sam’s attire in our secular school, or the way he surveyed the class without any hint of first-day anxiety, I don’t know. All I remember is how his eyes alighted on mine, and he made his way straight for the empty seat next to me.
“Hi. I’m Shmuel,” he said, offering me his hand.
I took it weakly. I wasn’t used to boys wanting to be my friend, and saw no reason why Shmuel would be any different.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Nothing much,” I repeated noncommittally.
“There’s something wrong with your neshomo.”
“Neshomo,” he articulated slowly. “It’s Hebrew for soul.”
“How do you know I’m Jewish?” I asked. In those days, I wore no yarmulke, no tzizsis. No identifying features of being Jewish.
Shmuel smiled knowingly. “So, tell me. What’s up with you?”
“Nothing,” I snapped defensively. “Just leave me alone.” And I turned my back on him. I’d had enough of people prying into my life. Teachers, counselors, family. All with looks of concern and pity. All with a potpourri of self-help mantras and reassuring platitudes. The last thing I needed was someone else joining their chorus, especially not a religious nut.
That afternoon, I had another appointment with my psychiatrist, Dr. Coleman. But as I stood in the hallway outside his office, I found myself unable to enter. I couldn’t take any more of him. The way he spent each session lovingly running his fingers over the books he had written, clearly far more interested in reveling in his own achievements than in listening to the problems of another screwed-up kid. Besides, what was the point in all this talk? I had been thrown into a pit without a rope to pull myself out, and talking about what it felt like down here in the darkness wasn’t going to change anything.
As I stood there, Dr. Coleman’s door opened. Instinctively, I bolted away, diving into the open doorway on the opposite side of the hallway.
Once inside, I looked around, taking in my surroundings. The first thing I noticed were the books that filled the shelves from floor to ceiling. Leather-bound volumes with gold lettering in some foreign alphabet. Even though I couldn’t understand what they said, there was something comforting about them, a sense that the wisdom of the ages was contained within these volumes.
Up front, there were several guys in black skullcaps huddled together in pairs, talking animatedly as they pored over large volumes. At the head of the room, a wisp of a man with a long, white beard swayed gently as he read, as if in a trance.
I sank down into a chair at the back of the room, and took a random volume from the shelf. I closed my eyes, feeling a sense of relief at finding a place where I could be alone, without interference.
I looked up. And there he was again. Shmuel.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“What are you doing here?” I replied.
“I study here.”
“Oh.” Why couldn’t I find any place where I could be left alone?
“You want to join me?” he asked.
“No. I’m reading.”
“Right. Well. Enjoy.”
He turned to go. Then, he turned back to me. “This might help,” he said. He took the book in my hand, and turned it the right side up.
I felt a flash of embarrassment, but then Shmuel left me alone, and I remained undisturbed for an hour.
At five o’clock, when my appointment with Dr. Coleman was due to end, I headed out. I paused for a moment in the hallway opposite his office.
“Got an appointment with the Doc?” It was Shmuel, next to me.
“No. Why would I?” I said defensively.
“No reason. But if you did, I would tell you to skip it. The only thing the Doc is interested in is himself.”
“How’d you know?” I asked.
“I had a few sessions with him when my parents split up. He’s the best in the city, you know. At least that’s what all the plaques in his office say. So parents who can afford it, or who feel guilty enough, send their kids there when they get divorced.”
“And did he help?”
He made a toilet-flushing sound. “He spent all the time checking himself out in the mirror. After a few sessions I couldn’t take it anymore, so I hid out in the B.M.”
He pointed to the hall from which we had just emerged. “The Beis Hamedrash. Study Hall.”
“And it helps?”
“Yeah. It helps.”
“What’s the difference, though? Religion and psychobabble. Isn’t it all the same drug with a different name?”
“Is it? Is it really?” Shmuel said, his eyes flaming, as if I had ignited a fuse within him. “The Doc says we should all follow our feelings and pursue our desires. In the Doc’s world, it’s okay for your Mom to fall in love with another man, and to tell you, before she moves out, that she’s not cut out to be a mother, and she wants to lead a more free-spirited life.”
I recognized a familiar strain in Shmuel’s voice. It was the same strain that crept into my own voice every time I spoke about Dad.
“But on this side of the corridor,” he continued, turning to the Beis Hamedrash, “is a fortress against all that craziness. Over here is a world of structure and order, whose pillars are the mitzvos, the commandments. The Torah says that for a good life, you have to follow the mitzvos. That means you have to do some things for your own good, even if you don’t feel like it. And it means that other things are absolutely forbidden, even if you crave them, especially if you crave them.”
“Because the Torah recognizes that we crave some things that are so destructive, you have to put an electric fence around them with a big Do Not Enter sign. Because if you climb that fence, and enter the minefield to follow those desires, you’ll blow yourself up and everyone around you.”
What Shmuel said struck an immediate chord. If Dad had put up a barrier around his desire for that other woman, maybe we would still be a family.
But there was an obvious problem. “What if you don’t believe in God, in the mitzvos?” I asked.
“Na’aseh v’nishma,” he said. “You have to live this life to understand it. You can’t prove it like a science experiment. All I can say is I’ve lived your life. And I’ve lived this life. And each day, I feel the truth of the mitzvos more and more.” Shmuel’s eyes lit up as if he were illuminated by a higher source.
But still, the skullcap and fringes and Hebrew alphabet were so alien to me, how could I even think about getting involved? I had never set foot in a synagogue, and didn’t know a single letter of the Hebrew alphabet. My parents said they didn’t want to indoctrinate me. They said they wanted me to make my own choices about life, and so had denied me any exposure to our traditions and customs. Getting involved in the Jewish religion was no less crazy to me than joining the Moonies.
“But hey, it’s not for everyone,” Shmuel said, reading my doubts. “Whatever gets you through the night, right? Who knows, maybe Dr. Feelgood will be able to help you.” And he headed off.
“Hey, wait a sec,” I said, scurrying up to him. “What if I want to find out a bit more about all this?” I asked.
Shmuel smiled, as if he knew this would be my response. “When’s your next appointment with the Doc?”
“Tomorrow. I’m meant to come five nights a week.”
“Wow. You are a basket case.”
“Yeah, I am,” I admitted.
“Don’t sweat it. I was on the same regime. Now, I come to the B.M. every night after school. Why don’t you join me tomorrow?”
And I did. And the day after that. And the one after that, too. In no time, Shmuel and I were inseparable. We talked about everything together. His experiences and mine. We learned together. Prayed together. Slept over together.
Ever since Dad left, I felt as if I had been staggering around in the rubble he left behind. Now, with Shmuel by my side, I felt as if I was rebuilding my world, brick by brick. I felt like Shmuel and I were creating our own sanctuary, safe from the chaos outside.
Shmuel suggested I take on my Hebrew name, my holy name, Ya’akov. Together, we were Shmuel and Ya’akov, Warriors of Truth. We strode proudly down the school corridor, black velvet yarmulkes atop our heads, tzitzis flying in the wind, following the Derech Y’shara, the Way of Truth.
In Shmuel’s presence, I had been reborn.
Mom adapted as best she could to this strange new incarnation of her son. Initially, she was pleased that I had made a new friend. But then she started suspecting that this was more than a friendship, and that I had, in some way, become caught in Shmuel’s spell.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty!”
I jolted awake to see a group of gawping faces peering down at me. I was momentarily disoriented, before I realized I was still in Study Center.
“Having a dirty dream?” one sniggered.
I sat up. Mumbled some incomprehensible nonsense to the group, which garnered more chuckles. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I hid until the end of the evening, only emerging to pick up my return ride with Andrew’s mother.
Andrew didn’t mention anything about my behavior on the way home, but I knew, as soon as I was out of the car, he would convince his mother never to invite me to Study Center again.
And that was fine with me.
“Well?” Mom said as I entered the apartment, her eyes widening with hope.
I answered her with a withering glare, and went straight to my bedroom, slamming the door behind me for effect.
The following morning I kept up the silent treatment over breakfast, despite Mom’s attempts at reconciliation by offering to pay for an extra Mishnah lesson. But I would not budge.
Finally she cracked. “Look. I’m sorry, okay. All I wanted was for you to meet some other kids besides Shmuel. Girls as well as boys. Is that really so bad?”
“I don’t want to meet any other kids. Girls or boys. I just want to be with Shmuel.” I grabbed my backpack to leave.
“But why?” It was a cry of desperation from Mom.
“Why not? What do you have against Shmuel?”
“He’s just so . . .”
“Why? Because he wears a great big yarmulke on his head?” I said, placing my hand on my own yarmulke. “Or because he wears tzitzis hanging out of his trousers?” I said running my fingers through my own tzitzis. “Or because he studies the Mishnah?” I said, taking my own volume of the Mishnah out of my pocket. “Well, look at me, Mom. Not as you’d like me to be. But as I am. I’m different, too. And it used to bother the hell out of me. But since I met Shmuel, I don’t feel like a mutant any more. I feel like the luckiest boy alive. Because with one look, we know what each other’s thinking without having to say a word. And that feeling, it’s electric. I mean, did you ever have that with Dad?”
Mom shook her head. “No. No, I didn’t.”
“Yet on paper, you and Dad were a perfect fit. Both Upper Westsiders. Both secular Jews. Both lawyers. But look how different you turned out to be.”
“Yeah, look,” Mom said, sinking into a chair. Her body seemed to fold in on itself, as if I had winded her.
“I’m not trying to hurt you,” I said. “All I’m saying is that sometimes the person who seems the most different from you is the one you’re meant to be with. And I pray that one day you get to experience what that’s like.”
As I walked to school, I began to feel sorry for Mom. Ever since Dad had left, she’d had this grey look to her, as if a cloud had permanently settled above her head. I knew how badly she needed something to go right in her life, and I was sorry that I couldn’t be that thing.
I didn’t think anything could brighten my mood that day. Until I saw Shmuel, waving at me from the school yard. Somehow, he could make the sun shine on the gloomiest of days.
That afternoon we went on a school trip to Central Park. It was a botanical outing, to observe the spring flora in all its reproductive glory. The park was beautiful, the snowdrops, bluebells and crocuses peeking through the newly sprouted lawns of Cedar Hill. From there we headed towards the Ramble, to observe the new buds on the cherry and magnolia trees.
As we clambered through the woods, we heard faint moaning, followed a few moments later by the sight of a semi-clad man and woman having sex on a bed of cherry blossom.
It was the first time I’d seen The Act, live, in the flesh. It must have been the first time for my classmates too, because everyone stared in dumbstruck silence, as the couple writhed and moaned with pleasure.
“Hey!” Our teacher’s arrival broke the moment, sending the class into guffaws of embarrassed laughter, and the couple scrambling for cover.
The rest of the outing was punctuated with jokes and giggles, as my classmates laughed about what they had learned on the field trip. But Shmuel and I did not laugh. A silence descended on us. The image of that man, his face glistening with sweat, his eyes closed in an expression of pure bliss, had triggered a hidden craving in us both.
At the end of the field trip, Shmuel and I lingered at the Columbus Circle exit to the park, each knowing what lay on the other’s mind.
“So . . .?” I ventured.
“So . . .” Shmuel repeated.
“Shall we?” I asked. It was a formality. A prelude to what we both knew was about to take place. The monster had been unleashed within us. And it had to be satisfied.
Shmuel looked at me a moment. He gave a brief nod.
We were on.
Ten minutes later, Shmuel and I were standing at the corner of Fifty-Fifth Street and Eighth Avenue. We looked down the street at our target: the news agent that sold magazines that catered to our own special needs. Shmuel gave the nod, and we stuffed our tzitzis in our pants, whipped off our yarmulkes and replaced them with baseball hats pulled low over our foreheads. We each slid on a pair of Ray Bans, and our transformation was complete. We were no longer Shmuel and Ya’akov, Warriors of Truth. We were Special Agents Samuelson and Jacobs, out on a secret mission.
We took up our vantage position across the street from the news agent, patiently waiting for all of the customers in the store to leave. As soon as the place was clear, Agent Samuelson gave me the nod, and we entered.
Agent Samuelson took up his position as look-out by the candy counter, checking for any potential intruders, as I went over to the magazine counter. I scanned the top shelf, my eyes swiftly going past the row of publications that appealed to the general prurient public, in search of the specialist material tailored to the likes of Agent Samuelson and me.
But none of our usual list of titles was there.
Was Hashem, God, trying to save us from ourselves? Was He giving us one last chance at redemption?
But it was no use. We were too far gone to go back.
I reached up, pushed aside the other magazines, and there, lurking at the back, was the object of our quest.
I whipped the magazine from the shelf. Strode over to the cash register, and put the magazine down on the counter.
The shop owner put down his mug of coffee and ambled over to the register. He was a middle-aged man, who had photos of his wife and kids tacked up behind the counter. He looked down at the magazine, then up at me, with a sad expression. Do you really want this? his eyes asked. Is this really who you are?
I felt a tug of guilt deep in my gut as if this man were an agent of God, sent to remind me I had fallen.
Ping. The doorbell chimed, bringing me back to the moment.
I glanced around. Someone had entered the store.
Agent Samuelson approached, giving me a nod. There was still time to complete the mission. He stood behind me, as if waiting in line, providing cover for me to complete the transaction. That was my partner. He always had my back.
I whipped out the money from my pocket, pre-counted, no change required, and placed it on the counter. I took out a plastic bag from my other pocket, two in fact, doubled up so that roaming eyes couldn’t identify the contents of the bag, and stuffed the booty inside.
We turned to go. A young woman stood behind us in line, fresh-faced and innocent and smelling of spring. Another angel sent by HaShem to remind us of everything that was pure and good that we had just forsaken.
Agent Samuelson and I stood aside for her, perfect gentlemen, and let her pass.
We made a swift exit and walked silently to the end of the street.
Agent Samuelson gave me a nod, a hint of a smile playing on his lips, just enough to signal a mission well-executed. Right back at you, partner, I signaled with a brief nod.
Agent Samuelson and I knew the routine from here on, without having to say a word. As it had been my turn to purchase the material, I would view it first. Tomorrow, I would give it to Agent Samuelson to view. And on the third day, we would have a final, joint viewing, before burning the magazine in an act of ritual purification.
We whipped off our dark glasses and baseball caps. Put our yarmulkes back on, took out our tzitzis. And once again, we were Ya’akov and Shmuel, Warriors of Truth, diehards for the Derech Y’shara.
As soon as I got home, I went to my bedroom, and locked the door. No-one was home yet, but I was always extra vigilant when in possession of sensitive material. I pulled the curtains shut so that no wandering eyes could find me in my hour of sin.
I sat down in a corner of the room. Retrieved the plastic bag from my backpack and slid the magazine out.
Opening its pages was like easing into a hot bubble bath. I looked at the images slowly, reverently, with a sense of awe at the bodies that gleamed in these pages. Baruch Hashem, thank you God, for creating the human form in such majesty! As I turned the pages, I felt light-headed, as if I were levitating, lifted free from all my worries. It was like the menucha--the serenity--that I felt in the midst of prayer, when I merged with the words, and together we ascended to heaven. Was this what Moses felt when he rose up on Mount Sinai, and came face to face with the Divine Presence? I felt like I had entered the Garden of Eden, a state of pure, unworldly ecstasy.
My body convulsed. Unable to contain this brief taste of heaven, it released itself.
As soon as it did so, the images before me were no longer pleasing. The beautiful bodies turned into demons, vile reminders of who I was, of the monster that lay at my core.
I threw off my clothes, now contaminated by my sin, and tossed them into the laundry. I took off my tzitzis, my poor tzitzis, which had been unable to save me from myself.
I stepped under the shower, praying that the water would wash away my impurity. As I scrubbed, trying to cleanse myself, I planned out how I would do teshuva, repentance for succumbing to my cravings. I would fast on Monday and Thursday for a month. I would get up extra early to say Tehillim, the Psalms, before the morning prayers. I would do the dishes every day for two weeks. And I would never criticize Suzie again, a saint compared to her degenerate brother. I dried myself and went to the linen closet to get a fresh pair of tzitzis. I pulled out a pair, and gasped at what I saw. They were pink. It was as if my sin had bled onto my holy fringes, contaminating them. Repulsed, I threw open the garbage can and was about to toss them in, when I stopped.
This was a sign from Hashem, I realized. It wasn’t to be ignored. I should wear these pink fringes every day, so that every time I looked at them I would be reminded of this moment, and never succumb again.
I thanked God for this lesson, and pulled my pink tzitzis over my head. I headed back to my bedroom, determined to begin the cleansing process right away by spending an hour reading Sha’arei Teshuva, the Gates of Repentance.
I pushed open the door to my bedroom. And stopped still.
There, in front of me, stood Mom, holding the magazine, her mouth open in shock.
I remained glued to the spot, unable to move, to utter a word. All I could do was watch, horrified, as she leafed through the magazine, revealing page after page of men, their muscular bodies glistening, in states of heightened arousal.
And conjoined with them were women. Countless women in an encyclopedia of sexual poses. Those images of the female form in all its mystery and wonder had such power over me, they had transported me to another realm, just as that semi-clad woman in the park had transported her lover to a state of bliss. Such was the magnetism of women. Wondrous, awesome, and terrifying in its ability to consume.
Mom looked up at me. Tears filled her eyes. Tears, like the ones I had last seen when she found out that Dad was cheating on her.
I was Dad. No better.
Just as Dad had followed his instincts, destroying our family in the process, I had followed my instincts, destroying what was left of my mother.
Mom dropped the magazine and approached me. She took my burning face in her hands. Was she going to slap me? Cry out, why had I done this? Why was I such a hypocrite, like Dad?
But her expression changed. She broke into a smile. A big, broad smile.
She embraced me, hugging me tight.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Perfectly okay.” She looked at me with an expression of pure joy. I hadn’t seen such joy on her face in . . . well, in the two years since Dad left. “You’re my boy,” she said. “My perfectly healthy teenage boy.”
Copyright © Mark Highman 2011
Mark Highman grew up in London, and received an M.A. in philosophy, politics and economics from The Queen's College, Oxford. He qualified as a barrister in London, and received Professional and Advanced Certificates in screenwriting from UCLA. He now lives with his wife in New York City.