How to Promise

By Zach Semel

A few months after I get back from Europe, I’m in the back seat as my dad drives down East 72nd Street toward 2nd Avenue, luxurious building lobbies flashing by in golden blurs.

Thirteen floors up, we knock on their apartment door.  My heels tap anxiously on the hallway carpeting.  The door opens, letting out a dull glow.

“Hi, sweetie,” my grandma says, strained, wrapping me in a warm Columbia-sweatshirt hug.  I kiss her on the cheek.  We put our coats down in the corner.  The living room and dining room are one open space furnished with a long, maroon, leather couch and a wooden coffee table streaked to appear aged.

“How’s Grandpa?” I ask.

“He’s asleep,” she says.

Past the closed door of the quiet bedroom, the bathroom smells barren—no more of that familiar shaving-cream air.  As far as I’m concerned, his lifelong brand was classic Barbasol in the stubby navy-blue bottles—the ones you trip over in the street the day after Halloween.  He had always smelled like it, as if he had just gotten back from a 1980s barbershop.  But he doesn’t use that stuff anymore; my dad got him an electric razor because he’s been cutting his cheeks up so badly.  I see the shampoo he used to use, too—Pert, those bright green bottles like apple-scented cleaner.  The mirror seems dirty now, and they don’t keep many pills in the medicine cabinet, “or he’ll hide them.”

In all the stories I read about Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or whatever—the disease makes people forget these peripheral things.  Where they put the electricity bills, bank statements.  Where their favorite restaurant is.  Who their children are.  But what I was not prepared for was how he forgot how to take care of himself.

I run some warm water over my face, letting the rivulets cruise down over my uneven cheeks, then I look in the mirror.  I think of his face, same as mine—the slight sunken-ness of his eyes, an accursedly ovular head, narrow with a sharply-curving jawline, all centered around a protruding, pointed nose.  I run my fingers down from the center of my forehead, letting them spread wide to my ears, and I wonder what other parts of him I might inherit.

.       .       .       .       .

As far as secular Judaism goes, Passover is an unusually somber occasion.

My history of Passovers largely consists of a spectrum of khaki pants that become progressively less baggy over time, my sweaters less dominated by stripes of murky green and brown.  Many are items that my mom had folded and buttoned up for me.

We are told that matzah is a staple food product of the Exodus narrative, led to picture scrawny hands in biblical huts packing sand-speckled sheets of it into woven baskets, the bread not yet risen, crackling between quick, blistered fingers.  We have that hurriedly prepared bread ready this time, purchased in cardboard boxes that’ll be ratty in July when we finally decide to smear some peanut butter on the stale three quarters of the contents that remain—so rarely giving in to those kinds of memories that we middle-class Jews can easily put off.  Our trauma is contained within stories of stories, and they terrify us nonetheless.

After reciting each Plague, in unison, we fingerprint wine from our cups on white IKEA plates, the blots soon pooling together.  The bitter herbs are passed along with practiced rhythm.  We each dip them in the salt water and take a pensive bite into memory, and like the water rippling, we seem to vibrate for a minute—all of us together, all at once.

 .      .       .       .       .

My bar mitzvah was on June 6th—D-Day.  Rabbi Fertig—affectionately referred to as “Arnie” by the post-pubescent in our congregation—was particularly somber as he helped me conduct the service, a film of spittle accumulating on his lips with every syllable.

The room was filled with a silence, broken only by the divide between my politely-confused Christian classmates and the Jews, on the other side of the aisle.  My best friend, having seated himself in the front row of cushioned seats, applauded unceremoniously after my readings, only to be shushed by congregation members.  I’d spent months memorizing these prayers, biking up treacherously-steep Prospect Street to go to Hebrew lessons twice a week.

The service went smoothly.  I heard quiet snickers from my classmates when I was made to parade the Torah around the room in my scrawny arms, the massive scroll dwarfing my thirteen-year-old frame; I remember how the sun-lit room seemed to surge and swirl around me in roaring, symphonic clapping, and the collectivity of it all took me in a euphoric tide as we all sang, siman tov, umazel tov, siman tov, umazel tov, siman tov, umazel tov, the certainty of each syllable seeming to hold together our mortal heritage.

After the final prayers were said and the congregation stood up to stretch out, Rabbi Fertig enveloped my hand in his and shook it.

I walked outside the temple before everyone else, feeling so tired.  I was supposed to be older now, after this, and I didn’t know what that meant.  My grandpa followed me out, his stride modest but confident, his black suit and tie immaculate.  He carried with him the same existential certainties that his father had carried over the Atlantic to Brooklyn, the same will to preserve what he’d been given.

He placed his hand on my shoulder.

“I’m very proud of you, Zachary,” he said.

I’d resented being called that name in every moment I could recall except this one.  He hugged me, and I smiled as I felt his clean-shaven face brush against mine.  Nearly wordlessly, he convinced me of my worth.  He had that way about him.

.       .       .       .       .

We all went out for Italian for his eightieth birthday dinner.  This tiny place near Washington Square Park.  My grandparents had taken me here once before, walking quickly and confidently, leading me under the arch and down a side street.  The owner, a friend of theirs, had promised me champagne with dinner after I graduated college.

My grandpa and my grandma shared a plate of fried zucchini, to start.  She got a seafood pasta; he and I got chicken parm.  I sat to his right, my parents and sister on the other side of the table.  After we had our entrees, my grandpa went to the bathroom.  He was there for a while, then returned, seeming to be fumbling with his shirt at the waistline.  Promptly, the cake emerged from the kitchen—white frosted, small but elegant, littered with candles.  The restaurant owner, a man brimming with Italian gusto, sang “tanti auguri a te” while most of us mumbled along with him.  But I sat silent, staring.  My grandmother might have noticed, too.  Seen his hand lingering low out of the corner of her eye, already knowing well that his fingers weren’t so cooperative anymore.  Maybe she didn’t know what to say to him then.  I didn’t.  Our waiter sliced the cake, provided each of us with a piece.  I hardly had a bite, I think.  I didn’t really see anything for the rest of the night.  Stuck in my eyes, projected onto the subway walls, onto the city sidewalk was the image of my grandfather, the great lawyer, shoulders high, his stubbly jaw shadowy in the candlelight as under the table with one hand he held the separate ends of his belt together.  I’d wiped a stray tear away, but had remained silent—guarding his pride.  I loved him too desperately to have done anything else.

.       .       .       .       .

The Hanukkah prayer is like a breath—something conscious and not.  Your ears are dulled by the steady humming of words by your family around you.  Your very fake marble countertop is coated with last year’s candle wax—sticky flotsam in the speckled white.  You may have cried earlier because of a bad report card.

Your family exchanges substantial gifts, which many don’t.  When you get older the gifts will sometimes be things being returned to you—your phone a few times, after having texted (girls) too much, your first driving ticket partially paid off.

After you say the prayer each of the eight times, your parents hug you, even when you feel certain that they won’t want to.  Later in life, you’ll realize that those unconditional kinds of nights taught you that it’s only in your mind that you’re not lovingly in theirs.

.       .       .       .       .

Grandma does the bills now, which involves both paying them and finding them—behind the bed, under it, in his drawers, in his closet.  He hides them, I hope, because he doesn’t want her to have to take care of things, and he knows he can’t.  From the other side of the wall, I can hear her rifling through papers near her closet; later she will spend hours at the breakfast table asking my mom questions about things she had never had to know before.

My grandpa wakes up as she leaves their room.  The apartment is small enough to hear him sitting up on his bed, ever tired.

On the couch, I kick my shoes off and prop myself up, and my grandma, seeking a break, says that I have to show her the pictures from Poland!  I had promised weeks ago, after all!  I quickly take out my laptop, ready the photo album, and turn the brightness all the way up.

She sits next to me; I rotate the screen towards her as my grandpa enters the room and plops himself at the dinner table, across the room from us.

The first picture is of the main square at Krakow.  The stones of the Cathedral and the Square, alike, are lit up in the darkness and I feel for the first time that this trip was to see a beautiful place.  My grandpa grunts.  He knows what we’re looking at, as Grandma has undoubtedly loudly anticipated this for months.

We click forward through the Polish countryside to the first camp.  The buildings are dark and bold against the grey sky; the muddy ground spits at my ankles.  This is a nightmare I’ve been in before.

She gasps slightly at the sight of the infamous Auschwitz entryway.  I wince.

Palpable resentment begins to build in the silent room—in my grandfather—as I meekly describe the buildings in each photo while I continue to scroll.

After a few minutes of silence, his voice suddenly carves out the air with a sharp paranoia that I don’t recognize.

“Is this fun to you?  Will you make this your cool vacation?” he interrogates, almost slurred, his eyes hazily calculating my reaction.

A journey for bragging?  A socialite’s anecdote?  He thinks that I would reduce this memory to just that; he fears it.  And perhaps the worst of it is that I’m forced to wonder whether this furious possession is by his history or by his affliction.

Nausea swells within me as I recall my first minutes in the camp; it was hard for me to look up; I stare down at the ground, cataloging each step like a hostage, and I march to roll call, to the intersection where they perform the daily hangings; I see the fences and hear the rain on the bricks and I forget the feeling that I can leave here when I want to—how could I forget this?

I am unable to forget.

But I don’t know how to promise to him, to this different him, that I won’t.  The words that I need to reassure him are family heirlooms lodged in my throat.

My grandma looks to me.  I remember the drive back to the city—the anxious tapping of my heels on the steel bus floor, the friend who touched my shoulder—and now my grandma touches me that way, taking my hand, clenched.  She runs her fingers through my hair—hair, mountains of it in warehouses, cut from shaking heads in haphazard swaths—and she kisses my knuckles once.

He says, again, “Will you make this your cool vacation?”

My grandma, with warmth in her brown eyes, smiles at me and replies loudly enough for him to hear: “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

My feet tap on the carpet like knuckles rapping on a window, and I probe his face for a subtle reply; I look hard for a few seconds and I’m sure that I see his eyelids flutter, or his taut lips flicker faintly, and I have to tell myself that, as much as he is able to, he believes her.

Zach Semel is an avid Celtics fan, a wannabe psychoanalyst, and a lover of all things garlicky. Some of his other work has appeared on Breath and Shadow and is forthcoming in Read650’s ‘Jew-ish’ anthology.