By Racelle Rosett
“This isn’t my first rehab.” Ariel looked down at her hands as if there were something there for her; they were cupped as if she were holding a bird. “It isn’t even my fifth.” She laughed and did not look up, only gazing again at her hands, raising them now as if bringing water to her mouth and lowering them again. “Did you know?” she said brightly, looking up suddenly, directly at Rabbi Dovid like an eager student. “Did you know, there was this guy once who jumped out of a plane with a backpack filled with cocaine? So anyway, the fall killed him and his backpack was left hanging from a tree. So this bear found it and ate the cocaine, all of it, he didn’t stop ‘till he had a heart attack and died.” She paused expectantly. “That’s who I am. I’m the bear.” “But you didn’t die,” offered Rabbi Dovid. “You lived.” Ariel tipped her head and brought her cupped hands to a chest like a vow. “Trying to,” she said. She blushed like a girl, her skin already glowing pink from the rising sun. Rabbi Dovid rose and clapped his hands against his thighs, signaling that it was time to enter the Malibu surf. His group gathered there each Friday at lifeguard stand 17 where, twenty years before, he had sprinkled the ashes of his brother Eytan, whose request to be cremated was honored against the objections of their mother. Dovid had done it for him because he had asked him to, when he had called him from a bus station in the ironically named Needles. Eytan had been crying and said that he was done. The family had prayed that night that he would be arrested, but he had not been, and had died instead alone, some hours later, in the plywood living room of an unfinished house. That had been twenty years ago, when Jews were only good, before Jews had drug problems, before the doors of Bet T’shuva opened on Venice and Vera by the Jews of Los Angeles for their quietly broken children.
Ariel guided the longboard into the dark cool water. She felt protected in her wetsuit, official, a person with purpose. Anyone riding by on a bike or skating down the path on rollerblades would take her for a surfer. Her own thin body, usually so cold, felt strengthened by the secure pressure of her wet suit. She waded out to her chest with the others and held tightly to her board. The group made an easy circle, with Rabbi Dovid at the center. Ariel made certain not to look at anyone directly when they spoke, although she glanced sometimes at Anastasia, who was a mother and could have been a teacher or the woman at the bank, who had crashed her car with her children in the back seat, leaping onto the curb at eight in the morning into the clutch of arriving classmates who flew like startled birds. Miraculously, she had not killed anyone, but had broken both legs of the volunteer crossing guard. Anastasia called herself a “living amends” and was there by court order.
Ariel had come to Beit T’Shuvah because her mother had begged her, had wrapped her arms around Ariel’s knees and sobbed. The truth was that even as she witnessed this, Ariel felt nothing. Her father had taken her roughly by the arm, holding it up and away from her like a broken wing, and had guided her into the car. Ariel had only observed them. She had taken Vicodin to sleep, but the coke was still in her system and she felt a clean kind of wholeness that did not belong to them. She was in the machine of her body and observed them only distantly, like the sound of a TV in a neighbor’s apartment. She did not wish to consider that she was the source of the anguish that so distorted their faces, her mother’s expression frantic, as if searching the sea for a child whose hand she had held a moment before, her father’s face tightened by anger at Ariel’s weakness and at her mother’s both. Anger at himself too, that he persisted in trying, having his own addiction to the promise of her return.
The following morning, in the tiny single bed at Beit T’Shuvah, Ariel had felt a familiar pain, a pain that she believed lay in wait for her, a cold ache that she knew well. It was what made her different than her parents and her sister. She felt drawn in, at home, and a relentless beat of “this is who you are, this is the truth of you,” spoke to her like a hollow sound. She felt not alone, but in the company of want. She was, she believed, in the presence of evil, and punished by a lifetime of restlessness. She was undeserving, she thought, of an ease that flowed through the world and eluded her. Those respites were untruths and the font of pain she felt now was the most true and forever. “God is love,” she’d repeated, “God is love,” shaping the words with her lips and in her mind. She had rocked herself under the thin blanket, aware of the blanketed shapes in her room of her roommates; unabashed, she spoke, her breath urgent and rhythmic. “God is love God is love God is love,” she said, not knowing yet that this was her prayer.
As the sun rose and warmed the air around them, Rabbi Dovid led the group surrounding him in the water in the prayer Shehechianu – a prayer of gratitude for having reached this day. Ariel attended to each word as she said them, “Shehechianu v'kiyemanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.” “That God gave us life and sustained us that we could reach this day.” Others, she knew, had not. In the weeks since she had arrived at Beit T’Shuvah, many of their sessions were punctuated by an urgent kaddish said for people who had come before her and who had failed; Leah, her roommate of two weeks, stealing a child’s bicycle and riding to see her dealer in Mar Vista so that she could use again, had been found in the cement stairwell of a grade school, the bike leaning up against a tree.
The group dispersed and, each with their own destination, headed into the surf. Rabbi Dovid looked out over the horizon and measured the waves. He felt the same as he did on the bima looking out on his congregation on Friday nights, buoyed by them -- observing their grace and courage in the face of loss, watching as they navigated an uncertain future with hope and intention. They were the whole world, and when he saw a child between two parents, he saw the cradle that swayed between them. There, he saw the promise of family that gathers them up even in despair, even smarting from their own shame and wishing to push them away, to turn from them. Rabbi Dovid had seen Ariel’s father on Friday nights, lingering just outside the doorway, his body coiled with anger, unable, unwilling, to enter the sanctuary. Looking like a man with an appointment who had been kept waiting, he sometimes paced on the stairs on Venice Boulevard drawing in smoke from his cigarette and sharing the standing ashtray with Sol, who was both the receptionist and an addict. Sol had been promoted by Rabbi Dovid to answering the phones in his seventh month at Beit T’Shuvah. He had accepted his position with pride and seriousness, although he didn’t hear well because of a firecracker that was set off by malicious teenagers when he lay sleeping on the ground in the Nickel, that left him to only approximate the names of the callers, announcing, “A Mr. Rosensomething on line two.” Sol smoked on the steps on his break from the phones. He wore slippers. Ariel’s father wore smart leather loafers, which he used to tamp out the cigarette before returning to the hall just outside the service.
When Ariel gets up on the board and drops into the wave she feels she is a miracle. There is a rush of clean light through her body and she feels that she has a well of power. She rocks her weight and travels on the wave and she has a sense of new grace. For a moment she feels unbroken, she feels God. She wishes that she could never leave Beit T’Shuvah, because she suspects/knows that she will fail. She does not feel good in the world. She does not feel strong. She feels the disapproval of her father and that he is right about her, that what people say about her is true; that she is weak and that she is broken. That just as Tamara is whole and able, Ariel is a burden and the source of her family’s shame. A shandeh - that Simon Braverman’s daughter is a drug addict. Ariel thinks that it would be wise, best, to kill herself, and a plan forms. Then, she thinks it would be the best thing, the very best thing, to feel the coke in her body, to close her eyes and tilt her head back and be awash with bright clarity. And then she reminds herself that she is a child of God. That she is worthy of love. She hears the laughter of Anastasia as she maneuvers to stay up on her board. Ariel addresses her Yetser Ha’ra:“I am stronger than you,” she recites, “I have God and the matriarchs to drive you away, I have a higher power. I give myself over to a higher power.” Ariel finds her balance and, testing the strength in her body, rises again on the board. But for a moment she is distracted, she has thought about her Efram, her dealer. She has imagined the return to what feels good right away, clean right away, and to be even, the correction that comes when her body is delicious with coke. She lists and smacks on the board and she is at once below the water, her face being driven into the tumbling rocks. She is alert to the push of the surf and reminds herself to relax her body. She knows that it is seconds, not moments, but she feels sure that she will die. She is tossed around and disoriented, the salt of the cold water in her nostrils and in her eyes. She fights the panic of her trapped heart and puts her hands ahead of her as she is not supposed to do, and badly scrapes her wrists. A rock strikes her shoulder. Then, she is standing, brought to her feet by Asher, who stands beside her still holding the heft of her arm. She comes to her feet and regards him. She feels helped. She looks at his clear green eyes and tousled brown hair, wet in curls framing his face. He is addicted to Vicoden and had a wife and a baby who left him. Ariel ducks her head and wipes the salty cold water from her eyes with the back of her hand. Asher steps away, lifting his feet in what Ariel sees now is shallow water, the sound of the waves crashing louder than her heartbeat. She sees that Rabbi Dovid watches her from a distance and she waves to him that she’s okay. He observes her in the way that a mother might, craning her neck and shading her eyes against the sparkling water, finding her child, safe, flourishing. Ariel wishes that she were a child and that she could begin each day with promise and possibility. She wishes that all of her were new again, and that she would enter the kitchen and her mother’s eyes would reflect the bright future of each day instead of the fear that resided in her every look and gesture, Ariel’s past dragging behind her like a string of clattering cans.
Ariel regarded the addicts around her and wondered which of them would recover, each with a family who would come tonight and pray with them, for them. Tamara had not come to Friday night services and Ariel wondered, if she did, if she could even bear the weight of her sister’s forgiveness. Tamara, who had judged her never, Tamara who after her parents had kicked her out had let Ariel come to live with her in her small sunny apartment on Montana. Her year-older sister, who stood before her jewelry box, who had known what was missing and had said nothing, but had simply closed the small wooden drawer, accepting Ariel’s fragility as if it were her own shortcoming. Tamara, who comforted Ariel by placing her whole body beside her and smoothing her hair, holding Ariel as if she might be freezing, making Ariel feel beloved. Every evening, Ariel would go into her sister’s unguarded wallet and remove, then later return, Tamara’s ATM card, over the course of days bleeding the account of Tamara’s savings, her tuition. Ariel had used the money to buy drugs from a guy from up north she sometimes partied with and had given him the key to her place so he could crash there. Tamara had awoken to the stranger standing over her bed, his hand rifling her purse.
Ariel felt cold and floated out again into the water, her chest against the board, suddenly weary, as if she had clung to the board for days in the center of the ocean waiting for rescue. She let the water rock her and considered the other addicts as they moved through the water in her company. She felt a citizen of a country that was populated by people who were not fooled by her, had made her at once. “You are a liar,” they might have said, “You are neither loyal or kind. Come and sit by me, Liar. This is your only home.” Ariel tried to imagine a future. She knew about herself that she was most able to fail. When she had been clean before, for sixty days or seventeen days or nine days, she had only ever felt that she was marking time, waiting patiently for the relief twinned with despair that was her only destination. If, for distracted moments, she did not think of or plan for her drug use, she felt accomplished. But then, like an author, she would construct her story with fresh detail, acquiring and discovering the cocaine, picturing herself first poised and then leaning back on the sofa of her dealer basking in the after, the undistracted brightness, the white noise of her drug.
The air was cool on her skin. She did not know if this time would be different, if she could assemble and gather the days after days until she was landed with firm feet into the next year, if her name would appear in the newsletter beside the week’s Torah portion to mark her year drug-free. Rabbi Dovid looked at her as you would a child who had fallen, his eyes a steady bridge to standing. She saw also that he was running a swift calculation, and would sometimes look away to conceal it from her. She had been cautioned by Rabbi Dovid that he could not draw them forward on this journey, but only hold the light to make clear their path. In the shadow cast by his lantern, she discerned his own fear for her. They might advance together through a dark cavern and she nearly always wished to announce herself unable to do the hard work of living in a life so described by shame, so measured in failure. Ariel was lulled by the waves that rocked the board she clung to. Rabbi Dovid tucked his own board under his arm and signaled with a wave of his arm that it was time to come in.
Toweling off their hair and breathing with vigor, the group prepared for Shacharit - the morning prayer. Asher unzipped the duffle that contained the prayer books and distributed them to the others. Anastasia, with motherly care, removed the taleysim and passed them around beginning with Ariel. Before Beit T’Shuvah, Ariel had never worn a tallis. She was hardly religious and did not think of herself as much of a Jew. She was just as familiar with Christmas in her own home, where they had a catered party every year for the holiday with people from her father’s agency. They did not light a menorah; she was not sure they even owned one, though she thought she might have seen one tucked into a cabinet with rarely used objects: the waffle iron, the electric knife. When Ariel was younger, she had been to bat mitzvahs of girls in her class, but had only ever talked through the service, sitting in a far back row with her girlfriends. She had felt like an imposter when she had first arrived at Beit T’Shuvah, but they had put her at ease, Rabbi Dovid teaching her the melodies and the meaning of the prayers, as if it had all been there waiting for her. She liked holding the prayer book, which even before she understood the words in it, had comforted her. She began to sleep with it in her hands, to carry it with her finger marking a page that said. “Hineni- Here I am, Behold me of little merit trembling and afraid, I stand before you.” This was how they answered at morning meeting when they took roll. “Ariel Braverman, addict, Hineni. Here I am.”
Rabbi Dovid regarded the congregation that stood before him. He summoned his brother to his side, as he did every day at the start of his prayer. He was aware keenly of the way in which he had failed him. He admonished himself for the thought and remembered the service led by Rabbi Snow for Eytan. The room was filled with people who loved him, but their love had not filled him. Dovid’s love had not filled him. He remembered him as they had been lying under the stars at Joshua Tree, the rocks beneath them still warm with the day’s sun. “I don’t know how,” Eytan had said. Dovid had rocked up on an elbow to hear the rest of what his brother had to say. But he had said nothing more. And Dovid had only lain back down and watched the stars burn and drop from the black felt sky.
Ariel took the corners of the tallis and drew it around herself. Rabbi Dovid had taught them that the tallis was a reminder of the 613 commandments in the Torah, a number so daunting as to reassure her. She could “do the next indicated thing” six hundred and thirteen times and perhaps the tasks would occupy her, carry her to a new place. The cloth with knotted strands was an instructive tool to be worn in the daylight. Rabbi Dovid had read from Psalm 104: “God covered himself with light as a garment who drew the heavens out like a curtain,” and Ariel imagined the tallis as the whole blue sky. Ariel held the tallis around her and brought her hands together at the wrists, making a silent illuminated tent. This was her time to make a vow, a dedication for her prayer, and she prayed that she would know how to live. That she could accomplish her t’shuva, and return to the world. The sun filled the space she had made with white sun and the air through the taut fabric shivered.
Copyright © Racelle Rosett 2011
Racelle Rosett is the winner of the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Prize for Jewish Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in Lilith, Ploughshares, the New Vilna Review, the Santa Monica Review, and will appear in the spring issue of Zeek. She is completing a collection of short stories which explore the usefulness of faith in a Reform Jewish community in Los Angeles. As a television writer she won the WGA award for thirtysomething. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. www.racellerosett.com