Semiformal

 

Semiformal

By Abigail Beshkin

 

 

Rachel’s parents had failed to make reservations in time for Parents’ Weekend so they are visiting now, almost a month later, pulling up to the hotel three hours after they’d planned to arrive. Three hours isn’t bad. It is, for them, practically prompt. They still have a full hour before they have to be at Friday night dinner at Hillel House, in whose two-story brick building students gather every week to share prayer services first, then a traditional dinner. For the services, at least, they would be on time. They could keep their daughter waiting for hours, she thinks, but they’d never stand up God.
 
Rachel leans against the hotel, a cinderblock monstrosity of a Sheraton three blocks from campus. She wonders why the grayest cities build the grayest buildings. In the winter rains, the boxy structures of concrete and stone camouflage into the steel Philadelphia sky.
 
Seeing her parents’ car approach, Rachel points vigorously at the sign for the hotel’s underground parking lot. Her father looks confused. He glances around as the cars behind him, having just sailed through a green light, find they can’t go any further and begin honking vehemently. They lean on their horns, a chorus of angry honking, the high sopranos of the compacts, the low basso profundo of the Cadillacs, the pitch-perfect altos of the SUVs.
 
Rachel continues jabbing her finger while her mother and father look around, until her father, eyes moving slowly, allows his gaze to follow his daughter’s frantic, flailing hand. Their car turns down the ramp, then disappears around a curve into the garage. She heads inside to wait in the lobby. She waits and waits. What could possibly be taking so long?
 
During the actual Parents’ Weekend, Rachel’s new friend from across the hall, Zoe, had invited Rachel out for dinner with her family, and Rachel, almost without realizing what she was doing, had said yes. She’d been thinking about her Comparative Religion class, where they’d learned how Amish teenagers were granted an entire year during which they were allowed to experiment with the things that were otherwise forbidden. Driving cars, for instance, or drinking alcohol. She could pretend there was something like that for the strict Jewish laws about eating that she’d been brought up to observe, and try a regular restaurant, the kind everyone else at school ate at. It would be like that. A one-time thing.
 
Now, as though she has summoned them with her thoughts, the elevator opens and her parents totter out, half-balanced, to the front desk, where they dump their bags with a low thud and roll their heads back and forth, side to side, in relief. The clerk looks up from his computer with disdain; Rachel can practically hear his eyes rolling. Standing behind a pole, she watches her parents. They seem older and, if it’s even possible, slower. She feels herself suddenly fast-forwarded in time to when her parents would be bona fide elderly people, like her grandpa, and her heart gives an aching pulse. Suddenly, she propels herself forward. “Mom! Dad!” She throws her arms around them one at a time, Mom first, and then Dad, his beard against her cheek scratchy as it has been since she was a little girl.
 
She takes one of her father’s bags and slings it over her shoulder, grabs one from her mother and leads them to the elevator, trying to set a brisk pace. “Dad, shul is in forty-five minutes. You have to get dressed quickly.” She has another worry, too. If they are late, the seats in the back will be taken, and she and her mother will have to sit in the front, and she will feel like all eyes are on her, though of course they wouldn’t be. In this crowd of girls with their professionally straightened hair and designer boots, she feels like a piece of the furniture, the plain institutional couch in the Hillel lounge, or the plastic, stackable dining-room chairs.
 
“Okay, okay,” he says, and then, “Rachel. You look older.”
 
“More mature,” her mother echoes, stroking back a piece of Rachel’s hair. Trying to live up to that impression, she straightens and tries to seem able as she leads them to the elevator.
 
Waiting downstairs while they dress, Rachel finds herself, as she has many times in the last weeks, thinking about her Parents’ Weekend dinner with Zoe’s family. It was Zoe and her parents, and Zoe’s brother who is still in high school. The restaurant, Tanjore, was in what had once been someone’s house, and to get to the dining room, the hostess led them up a creaky flight of polished wooden stairs, the banister strung with tiny white lights like the kind on Christmas trees.
 
Plus, Zoe had invited Alex, who lives a flight down from them. Zoe had known that Rachel was taking a class with Alex and might kind of like him, but would never admit it, barely even to herself. The restaurant served Indian food, but was, as Zoe’s mother was quick to explain, “much more upscale than a regular Indian restaurant.” Rachel, of course, didn’t know the difference; she’d never tasted Indian food, barely knew such a thing existed. At home, they always just went to the kosher falafel place that didn’t really have a name, and where she always recognized everyone since they all went to her synagogue.
 
The food at Tanjore was sublime. Spicy sauces sloshing over inlets of rice. Smoky roasted eggplant. Samosas, little pastry pillows of potato. Those were her favorite; she was, after all descended from a long line of potato-eaters. Still, these had been unlike anything she’d ever had. For dessert there was milky tea spiced with cinnamon, and fried balls of dough soaked, drowned, really, in a liquid that was something between honey and syrup.
 
Later, Alex kissed Rachel for the first time. She had never really kissed anyone before, not like that. But she found that once you’ve broken one rule, you might as well break a few more. Sitting on the stairs between his floor and hers, they kissed and kissed, scooting over whenever someone stumbled by on the way home from a party. By the end of the night she wasn’t even sure how many rules she’d broken. She only knew that happiness buzzed through her and she couldn’t fall asleep.
 
They’ve been inseparable in the three weeks since, though in the secret way that Rachel insists upon. She knows Alex wants to sit together in the dorm lounge to study, their knees casually touching. He wants to hold her hand in public and take her to parties, give her a drink in the proprietary way she has seen guys at parties do, handing girls red plastic cups filled with who-knew-what. But Rachel can’t imagine this. Somehow if she meets her not-even-a-little-Jewish boyfriend in private, she can make believe that whatever is happening between them is taking place in a plastic dome — she has an image of them as the pin-sized figures in a snow globe — or else it is not happening at all.
 
So, on most nights, she and Alex meet in the service lot behind the engineering complex, where the lab managers check in deliveries of chemicals and finely calibrated equipment. Sometimes they meet on the trolley platform and take the train to Center City and sit in the back of a café where they are unlikely to encounter anyone they recognize. In the Comparative Religion class where they first met, they sit on opposite sides of the room, though Alex insists that in a lecture hall with three hundred students, most of whom are probably hung over, no one will notice or, most important, care.
 
Only Zoe knows about Rachel and Alex, and she’s always full of questions. “Why would your parents care?”
 
“Because he’s not Jewish.”
 
“But you’re not going to marry him.”
 
“How do you know? My parents met in college.”
 
“No one meets in college anymore.”
 
“That’s not true. Lots of girls I know from home met their husbands in college. That’s what my parents think I’m going to do. Marry someone from Hillel. Or better yet, marry my old friend Ari. A double blessing,” she says drily. “A boy from Hillel who’s also a boy from home.”
 
“It could be just a fling,” Zoe said once, inserting in Rachel’s mind an image of two people tossing jeans and sweaters with easy laughter. She felt sad suddenly, picturing Alex’s sweet, serious eyes, the way his mouth made him seem to be concentrating hard on something, even if there was nothing in particular to concentrate on. She couldn’t picture that kind of casual stripping and flinging with Alex, with whom she liked to lose hours in conversation. And maybe, she realizes, that’s the problem: If she goes any further with Alex, there will be no going back.
 
“It can’t be a fling. We’re not supposed to have flings. If I’m going to date anyone, it has to be for real. To get married.”  
 
Zoe laughed. “It’s like Ivy League arranged marriages.”
 
“It’s not arranged.” Rachel sounded, she knew, more defensive than she’d meant to, and Zoe returned to trimming her bangs in the mirror.
 
Now, still waiting for her parents, Rachel regards her clothes, her longest black skirt excavated from the back of her closet, a modest gray sweater. What would she have worn if she’d been able to go with Alex tonight as he’d asked? He’d asked a few times, in fact, more than she deserved. Alex is in a literary society called The Literarians that meets once a week on the top floor of College Hall in an old-fashioned library that is straight out of a Victorian novel. Alex has taken her there late at night to show her the leather-bound books, the brocade armchairs. Their semi-formal is tonight, and he’d been so excited the last few times they hung out it was all he could talk about.
 
Since the night of the Indian food, Alex has been supremely patient. Agreeing to meet Rachel in odd places to avoid Ari, and also the Hillel gossips. Not being able to go out to dinner with her on a Friday night. She tells him over and over that he should forget her, see other people. He just shrugs. “You fall for who you fall for.” He is a real romantic — being in a literary society suits him. She knows she should call a halt to whatever is happening between them. Free him up to meet someone far less encumbered. Free herself too—from the hiding and sneaking around, and also from the guilt. Marrying outside the faith was just about the worst thing you could do. When her cousin had married a non-Jewish guy she’d met in college, her aunt and uncle had sat shiva as though her cousin had actually died. Still, Rachel can’t seem to give Alex up. When she’s with him, she feels a strange kind of melting feeling in her stomach, a softening that sends a tingling feeling down her arms and into her fingertips.
 
In her mind she browses the contents of her closet and gives a small shudder of embarrassment. She wouldn’t have had anything appropriate for Alex’s Literarian semi-formal. She wouldn’t have even known what kind of dress to shop for, or where to buy it.
 
 
Now Rachel’s mother emerges from the elevator. “Your father will be down in a minute,” she says, smoothing her dress, and then, “Let me look at you.” She pats her daughter’s cheek and nods her approval. “So tell me,” she says, leaning in and whispering conspiratorially, “how’s Ari?”
 
She shrugs. “He’s good. The same, you know. Good old Ari.”
 
“I can’t wait to see him. To think you two have been friends since you were little and now you ended up at the same college. He’s going to sit in shul tonight with Dad, right? Give him a little nudge if he dozes off?”
 
Rachel nods as the elevator opens and deposits her father. He pauses and looks around, bewildered, before his eyes stop on Rachel, who checks her watch. “Come on, we have to go.” She strides toward the front door, but her father stops, frowns, pushes it slowly, then backs up, pulls it closed.
 
“Is this door electric?” he asks of no one in particular. “Maybe there’s a side door and we can get a key for when we come home later?”
 
Hotels are always a problem. Key cards to rooms setting off little green lights, automatic doors to the lobby — all of this flickering on and off of lights and little electronic dings are clear violations of the Jewish Sabbath.
 
“Dad,” Rachel says. “Why don’t we get going? We can just follow someone else in if they’re opening up the door anyway.”
 
In her Comparative Religion class, when the professor had described these customs, he had made them sound like they hearkened back to the Dark Ages. Rachel had raised her hand. “It’s not that you actually sit in the dark,” she explained. “You can have lights. You just can’t physically use them. So, for instance, a lot of people put their lights on a timer, so they go on and off at a certain time. Or they just leave them on all night.” She hadn’t mentioned the third alternative: that you could ask a non-Jew, a shabbos goy, to turn them on for you.
 
He’d nodded and thanked her politely, then resumed his lecture. That was the day she met Alex, who had paused to talk to her on their way out of the lecture hall. “My friend growing up was like that,” he said. “Like what you described. His father was a professor with my mom.” She nodded and he continued, “I agree with you.”
 
“Oh?” She didn’t know what they were agreeing on.
 
“I think the professor made the whole thing sound very primitive. I spent most weekends at my friend’s house when we were kids and it wasn’t like that at all.”
 
Now she and her parents walk to synagogue, her father stopping to regard a statue of Benjamin Franklin bronzed to a bench at the campus entrance. Around her, students head out for the night. Many of the fraternities and societies have their semester-end semi-formals tonight. Girls click by in heels, clearly aware of how long — and fantastic — their legs are beneath their short black dresses. Rachel wonders if these girls are going to the Literarian semi-formal Alex is going to. The one he’d wanted to bring her to. Her. Rachel. The one she couldn’t go to because it is on a Friday night and the Sabbath is the Sabbath, you observe it every week. The girls at his semi-formal will be brainy types. These girls clacking their way down College Walk look like they’re headed to the AEPi party.  
 
Rachel’s mom says to Rachel’s father, “Look for Ari when you get there. He’s saving you a seat.”
 
“It’ll be nice to see him. How is he doing?”
 
“Fine,” Rachel says. The unanswerable questions of parents.
 
“Is he still pre-med?”
 
“Yep. That’s still the plan.”
 
Her father shrugs. “It’s a great plan. What kind of doctor is he planning to be?”
 
“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?” This last bit Rachel says just as a truck rolls up Walnut Street, so she has a chance to say more kindly, “We’ll ask him tonight.”
 
They get to Hillel early enough that she and her mother find seats in the middle, and she smiles at the other girls, introducing a couple of the ones she knows better. “This is my mom,” she says and they all smile that wide, welcoming smile — a parent is in their midst — partly relieved, partly sad not to have their own mothers sitting next to them. Friday night services are still Rachel’s favorite, the communal singing as night falls, a gradual loosening after the week, anticipation of a weekend of rest.
 
Rachel looks around at her fellow students singing in Hebrew and wonders, not for the first time, what Alex would think. There is a thing that happens in these services, she’s noticed it her whole life, couples seated on either side of the divider that separates the men from women in synagogue, catching one another’s eye, sending a small smile across the room in greeting. If Alex were here, would they do that, too? Send a secret smile across the room?
 
She looks over to see her father chatting with Ari, their heads bent in conversation, and sees her mother notice this too, knows that she is fast-forwarding in her mind to a few years down the road and envisioning this same scene Rachel with her mother in the ladies’ section, Ari with her father in the men’s section  only now Ari is their son-in-law, and he’s a doctor, and Rachel is — what?
 
They get four seats at a table for dinner, no easy feat. Hillel serves a traditional Friday night dinner, but it’s done on the cheap: chicken soup, chicken pieces, white rice, frozen carrots and peas. Despite what she knows her parents are shelling out for her meal plan, there is never quite enough food, and she always goes back to her room and fixes herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The kitchen worker plunks the tureen of soup in the middle of the table and Ari takes over, ladling for everyone.
 
How comfortable Ari looks, almost like he’s already head of a large family. She catches her mother glancing from her to Ari, back to her, then giving Rachel a knowing smile. Ari is stocky with curly black hair. He has nice eyes, though she is sorry she let that slip once in front of her mother. Rachel has never wanted to date him. In fact, yuck. It would be like dating her cousin. Still, her mother is nothing if not persistent, looking from her to him and back again. “Your soup’s going to get cold, Mom,” Rachel hisses.
 
She checks her watch. Dinner seems to be moving more slowly than usual tonight. Her father, always a good talker, is telling the story of their trip to Philadelphia, complete with traffic jams, near-miss collisions, and urgent pit stops.
 
What is Alex doing right this minute? He’d told her exactly what the semi-formal would be like. It was his first, too, but he’d heard all about them from the older Literarians. First there would be wine at the halls, the guys in suits, the girls in cocktail dresses. Then shared cabs downtown to a fancy restaurant. Later, back at the halls, more drinks, and rhyming toasts to the outgoing officers. And cigars. Even for the girls. Especially for the girls. “I’d love to see you puffing on a stogie,” he’d teased. It sounded silly, and thrilling.
 
She tried to get Alex to agree to take someone else, but he shook his head; not everyone brought a date. He’d just hang out with friends. It wouldn’t feel right without her. “I want to go with you or no one.”
 
Zoe is going, guilt-free, to the Alpha Phi party tonight. A life with no rules, and no guilt when rules were broken. She could party the night away, then top it all off with a cheeseburger with extra bacon.
 
One night not too long ago, Rachel had flopped on the edge of Zoe’s bed and sighed. “Maybe I should just marry him.”
 
“Who?” Zoe scowled. “Alex?”
 
“Ari, of course,” Rachel replied. “Our parents practically decreed it at our bar and bat mitzvahs. It would make everything so easy.”
 
“Why do you have to decide everything now? Can’t you experiment for a while and then decide later?”
 
“No,” Rachel said flatly, turning onto her back.
 
“Did you ever think that he maybe doesn’t want to marry you?” Zoe asked, sounding mildly disdainful on the word you.
 
Rachel sighed again. “No, he does. Everyone knows he’s been in love with me since we were in middle school. We’re supposed to go to the ivies, and he’ll be a doctor, I’ll be a, well, something professional. We’ll have a nice house near the synagogue and have kids, and I’ll make Sabbath meals, and we’ll invite over all our friends and their kids.”
 
It was, after all, what Rachel’s sister had done: gone to Harvard and married her college boyfriend, whom she’d met at Hillel during orientation week. Now he’s a researcher at a Harvard lab and she’s an epidemiologist at Harvard, and they have two kids and live on the top floor of a Victorian house in Cambridge. On Saturdays, the four of them walk to synagogue, each parent holding the hand of one kid. Hardly a hausfrau. Rachel’s parents practically implode with pride every time they talk about her sister.
 
“It doesn’t sound so bad,” Zoe shrugged. “It sounds nice, actually. And Ari’s kind of cute.” She flopped onto her stomach and propped her chin in her hands, then flashed Rachel a grin. “Maybe I’ll experiment with Ari and let you know how it is.”
 
“Ew.”
 
“I can’t imagine being you — Orthodox and everything. No offense, but it must suck.”

“We’re Modern Orthodox,” said Rachel. “It means we go to Ivy League schools before our arranged marriages.” They both laughed.
 
Now dinner is ending, finally. “Rachey, come to our room for tea,” her mother says.  “I brought pastry from Siegels.” Rachel feels her stomach respond with a growl, a quick swell of craving.
 
“I can’t, Mom. I have so much reading to do.” This is true; since she started hanging out with Alex, she’s fallen behind on her homework.
 
But she is also beginning to consider a plan, vague at first, but slowly taking form. The Literarian dinner is probably ending, and they are taking cabs back for the final part of the evening: the drinks and toasts and cigars. She could meet them at the halls. Surprise Alex. Maybe browse some of those old books, join in the semester-end merriment. She wouldn’t technically be in violation of the rules of the Sabbath. She would trek up the four flights of stairs at College Hall, no elevator. No cigar smoking, of course. A party like this wasn’t quite in the spirit of the Sabbath, she’d always been taught, but surely God didn’t want her to always miss out on all the fun. And surely God wouldn’t begrudge her a fling, some flinging with Alex, the chance to see what it was like to do exactly the thing that you felt. And maybe Zoe had a point. Maybe Rachel didn’t have to decide that Alex would be her husband and they’d be together until they were eighty or whatever, but they could be together now, this semester, this night.
 
“I feel pretty awake,” her father says, visibly disappointed.
 
“It’s still early, Rach,” Ari says. “I think we have time for a cup of tea.” With a flourish that Rachel finds annoyingly theatrical, he helps Rachel’s mother on with her coat. As Rachel and Ari pause to zip up their own coats, Ari points to a sign on the bulletin board: the Hillel semester-end banquet and Chanukah party next Saturday night. “We should go. You know, together,” he says, and Rachel nods in a way she hopes is noncommittal.
 
“Ari, come here.” Her father wraps his arm around Ari’s shoulders as the four of them set out for the Sheraton. “Tell me what you’re learning in biology.” Rachel knows that her father has always thought of Ari as the son he never had, and pictures them walking together to shul on Saturday mornings, comparing notes on scientific articles.
 
Zoe once said, “But if your father’s a scientist, how can he also believe all of that God stuff? Just believe in, like, this unseen power, who will smite you if you go out with someone who’s not Jewish? It doesn’t make sense.”
 
“I don’t know. It doesn’t work that way.” Rachel had never really thought about that question. It was just a given: you were a doctor, a researcher, or a scientist, and  you also went to shul on Saturday, and didn’t start your car or turn on a light switch because that was what was expected of you. “I just know that if I marry outside the faith or whatever — well, it just is not an option.”
 
Back at the hotel, Sheraton room 505 is warm and cozy. “Rachel, help me put out  dessert,” her mother says, as Ari and her father take a seat at the suite’s square dining-room table. Rachel untwists the bag of rugelach from the bakery in her hometown that is famous for them, takes a bite of one of the crescent-shaped, chocolate-striped pastries, and chews slowly. “What’s so funny?” her mother asks, smiling, and Rachel realizes she has been smiling, too, thinking of Alex’s almost insatiable sweet tooth. Sitting in Center City cafés, he has devoured plates of tiramisu and pie, even though he is tall and skinny, some would say scrawny. When her mother turns away to cut a piece of cake, Rachel takes two rugelach, wraps them in a napkin, and slips them into the pocket of her coat, flung over a chair behind her. She will surprise Alex when she shows up for the end of the semi-formal — one rugala for her, and one for him. The thought of going to him tonight, declaring a moratorium on the rules — perhaps not forever; she can’t promise that, but for now — makes her giddy.
 
She carries the dessert to the table while her mother opens the coffee urn,  streams boiling water into Styrofoam cups, and dunks a bag of Lipton tea into each. “Isn’t this nice?” Rachel’s mother asks, handing around the teas as though she is hosting dessert in her very own living room instead of a generic Sheraton suite. Ari peers at Rachel over his cup.
 
At the beginning of the school year, she and Ari had been always together, her affection for him growing in proportion to her homesickness and loneliness. She had, in those first unsure weeks of her freshman year, been happy to see his familiar face across the table from hers, bent intently over his book, the way she’d always seen it, every day almost, since first grade. Since she’s met Alex, though, she has been cutting short her study dates with Ari. She thinks of this with shame.
 
She is starting to get antsy. The caffeine has made her fidgety. Ari notices and stands up. “We should head out before it gets too late,” he says. “You two get some rest,” he tells her parents while clearing the table (such a mensch), “and I’ll walk your daughter back to the dorm.”
 
“You’re joining us for lunch at Hillel tomorrow, Ari?”
 
“Of course!” He flashes a smile.
 
Once at the quad, Rachel hurries to get inside, though Ari is standing close. He seems to be reaching for her arm and leaning in, so she says, “I’m freezing and exhausted. I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch, okay?” She gives him a chaste kiss on the cheek, then rushes across the courtyard to her room. Her roommate has, uncharacteristically, remembered that Rachel can’t turn on and off lights on shabbos, and left the mirror light on. Rachel quickly changes in the almost-dark into her shortest black skirt, her favorite, but which she knows can’t compare with the gauzy, lacey dresses the other girls will be wearing. She waits until she is sure Ari has made it across the quad to his own room, then rushes toward College Hall and the Literarian party.
 
It’s begun to snow. She sees a group of Hillel girls returning from Friday night dinner in someone’s apartment. They don’t see her and she pulls her wool hat down lower, thrilling at how easy it is to travel incognito. At College Hall she goes to the side door kept unlocked for the Literarians so they can have their evening events: earnest lectures, poetry readings, book discussions. By day, College Hall houses administrative offices, so now the ground floor is completely quiet.  
 
Rachel pushes against the door to the stairs — though the elevator is already there, its doors open, beckoning; just the push of a button and she’d be upstairs — and enters the stairwell. It is quiet, with only the dimmest safety lighting lining the wall. She takes the stairs cautiously, her eyes slowly adjusting. By the middle of the flight between the second and third floors, she can already hear the Literarians laughing, whooping it up. Someone shouts a hearty toast to the outgoing president, and there is a round of boisterous here-heres. Alex has told her that several of the Literarians have a tendency to feign British accents when drunk.
 
She already feels intimidated. An image of her parents sipping tea in their hotel room, having another slice of cake, flashes through her mind, and for a second she wishes she were there with them. In her pajamas, reading, like when she and her sister were little, the two of them sprawled out on pillows on the floor, their father in his chair, their mother on the couch, each with their book. For this weekend, her parents had offered to ask the hotel to provide a cot so she could sleep in the living room of the hotel suite, but she’d said no. She’s too old for that.
 
Then she thinks of Alex and that feeling comes over her, a little lurch, as though her heart is doing its own kind of flinging, and she races up the remaining stairs. She emerges onto the fourth floor of College Hall. In the big library, where the semi-formal is in full swing, a thick fug of cigar smoke fills the room. She can barely see the antique tomes, the armchairs, the faded Oriental rugs, and the dark wood bookshelves.
 
She stands in the doorway and watches. The girls stand confidently in their short dresses, throwing back their long hair when they laugh. The guys cluster in groups of three or four and sip drinks. Another round of drunken toasts starts, everyone laughing as the speaker struggles to find a rhyme to describe the Literarian’s treasurer. Rachel almost turns and runs back down the stairs, but instead she takes a deep breath and steps inside.
 
Across the library, in a worn leather armchair in a far corner, is Alex. He is holding a glass of brandy, or maybe it’s scotch, and talking intently to a girl she recognizes from her Shakespeare class, who perches on her own leather chair. She is tiny, with a little pixie face, dark blond hair, and tortoise-shell glasses. She is perfect in this room, in that chair. As though to prove this, she stretches her arms and leans her bare shoulders into the leather, all loose-limbed and relaxed.
 
Rachel watches them. The girl is explaining something and at one point leans in and touches Alex’s arm. He doesn’t touch her in return, but he looks pleased. He looks content, at home, unencumbered, sitting out in the open at this party with this girl.
 
Not a single person notices Rachel standing in the doorway, though she clearly doesn’t belong here, she in her sweater and skirt. The pixie-haired girl leans in closer as Alex throws his head back and laughs, and Rachel suddenly feels overtaken with self-pity, but also a twinge of satisfaction. Who’d she been kidding? What had she been planning to do: strip naked and declare her undying love for Alex? She’d been right — Alex is better off without her. She’s done him a service by not going with him tonight.
 
Still, she’s here. She’s at the Friday night Literarian semi-formal. Everyone is way too drunk to notice her. Plus a few of the women are wearing sweaters and skirts, as she is. She blends in perfectly. She enters the library and pours herself something from a crystal decanter, then makes her way to the shelves and selects a book.
 
She drapes her coat over the back of a chair at a table far across the room from Alex and settles in. Groups of students mill around in the center of the room, lean against bookshelves, perch alight on the arms of overstuffed chairs. When one guy moves, she spots Alex and the pixie girl. Then someone else fills the space and she can see only the girl. Alex is lost to her. Rachel slips her hand into her coat pocket and fingers the rugelach she’d packed to share with him. She pulls them from her pocket and takes a sip of her drink, then bites into the first one.

 

Now a woman in a strapless dress stumbles away from one cluster to join another, and there’s Alex again. The pixie seems to have walked away. To get a drink? To get them both drinks? Alex is looking around the room. Soon his eyes will land on her. She takes another bite and, while she waits, eats the rugelach both of them. One, and then the other.

         

Copyright © Abigail Beshkin 2021

Abigail Beshkin is a writer and editor living in New York City. A graduate of Columbia University School of Journalism, she spent almost a decade as a reporter and producer for public radio stations in Phoenix and Boston, and her work has been heard nationally on NPR, among other places. Her fiction and personal essays have appeared in The Forward, Universal Hub, and Submerging, and she has participated in the Bloom Reading Series, which she also curates; the Eagle and the Wren reading series; and the popular storytelling show and podcast “Soundtrack Series.” She has been a finalist in the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize competition and the Between the Vines and Cuttyhunk writer’s residencies, and has studied with the writer Hannah Tinti, among others. She is the editor of Columbia Business, the magazine of Columbia Business School.


 

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