By: Emily Rapp
This will be my name when I marry Ben, I thought, as the Rabbi and I looked over a list of Hebrew names. “Ruth is quite popular with converts,” he suggested, “but here,” he pointed with a finger just beginning to spot with age, “Shoshanna is a nice name, too.” The light from the large window in his office fell over the desk stacked high with papers and textbooks and printed spreadsheets. I felt a surge of real affection for this man, who had been coaching me in the fine points of the Jewish religion for the past six months.
“Can I wait until I get back from Israel to decide?” I asked.
“Of course!” He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a few fistfuls of pens before producing a calendar. “And let’s schedule your mikveh now, to be sure all the rabbis are available.”
As I was driving down Mulholland to my apartment in Hollywood, that odd toxic but beautiful blend of yellow and orange, a quintessential Los Angeles sunset, I practiced some of my potential new names aloud. I imagined saying the Shema, rising up out of the ritual bath, and emerging a new woman, water dripping from my shoulders, my hands, my knees, and Ben waiting for me on the other side of the curtain, both of us glimmering with the power of my transformation, a new name on both our lips and with it, the promise of a new life. To be made new: this had always been, since I was a child, my singular wish.
During one of his best sermons, my father brought to the pulpit a copy of his birth certificate. Born in a Chicago Salvation Army hospital to an unwed teenager mother in the early 1940s, this certificate was one of his mother’s most prized possessions; it proved to her that she’d done at least something right. On the certificate was proof that he was saved, marked by God, a child of the right religion, even if my grandmother had broken every other moral code. My father, in turn, baptized me when I was three months old. Although I no longer believed in the sanctity of this act, or that it saved me or bestowed upon me grace or favor, my father had spoken my name, and the congregation repeated it, and that repetition meant you belong to us.
When had that tribe started to feel like the wrong one?
I met Ben the day I moved to Los Angeles. From the beginning, I couldn’t get enough of him. Something about his body, his presence, the way we fell together so easily—at the bar, in his truck, in his single bed that was still marked in Sharpie with his name, camp sheets that his now-dead mother had sent him away with, to identify him. I loved the way his hands felt in my hair when he sat behind me at a party and told all of his friends that we were in love. “Is she Jewish?” his friends asked. I was not, but I would be, I determined, and this solidified our love, at least for me: now, I had a task.
At the church bazaars of my youth, I loved best the sugar eggs sold by women who still made such novelties. When you carefully peered inside, a mini-nativity scene or a family of tiny bunnies sculpted from marzipan revealed itself. In much the same way, everything about Ben presented a new universe to me, and I never grew tired of looking. Curiosity, I thought, was as good an indication of love as any other.
Within a month of meeting Ben, each Sunday I now drove along Mulholland to my conversion class, passing groups of bikers out for pre-heat rides and brown-skinned maids getting off buses, holding plastic bags in their hands, headed off to clean the houses of the well-heeled in Beverly Hills.
We converts sat in a circle on straight-backed chairs in a conference room at a university on top of a hill. Most of the converts looked like me, one even strangely so, with her pale skin and long red hair. One woman was a Swedish model who drove all the way from Santa Barbara with her fiancée each morning. They looked like someone’s long ago idea of hippies who kept talking about “beautiful life” together, although as far as I could tell, she didn’t have a clue what was going on when we discussed the meaning and significance of Passover. They’re not doing their reading, I thought, and was proud again of my ability to keep up with the weekly homework. I was reminded of being in Sunday School as a child; standing up to sing songs at the beginning of each class, only this was not about Jesus, and the songs were in Hebrew. Next step? Full conversion. In Israel. When I arrived, Ben would have been there for a few months on a fellowship. My flight was booked for June.
On the flight from Los Angeles to London and then on to Tel-Aviv, I couldn’t get three pages into the modern history section of my Israel guidebook without feeling overwhelmed by the complicated maneuverings of invasions and treaties, agreements and occupations. I skipped to the logistical section, making lists of the hotel meeting points for the tours that Ben and I had booked—Nazareth, The Old City, the Dead Sea. I felt giddy and frightened, as if I had been released from a burden I wasn’t aware of until I was released from it.
A few days later, as I stood in line for the bus from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, a man asked me, “What are you making of Israel?” Ben was buying sodas at a nearby kiosk. The neon clank of the station was overwhelming: watches and gold for sale in booths notched at the top of escalators, sarongs and skirts swinging from long racks that extended like arms into the rush of bodies, a constant press of passengers headed out of the city and into the desert. I looked around, embarrassed by my uneasiness, expecting violence to come sprinting around the corner at any moment: a stranger with a weapon raised, or someone screaming warnings about a bomb. “Oh, it’s lovely,” I said, thinking no such thing. I stared at the young men and women with submachine guns slung across their chests as they snapped gum and talked on their cell phones, shuffling their way through three years of compulsory military service. I’d nearly shouted at an Orthodox woman who had rammed her baby carriage into my calves, rushing me through security at the messy mouth of the station. The River Jordan was a disappointing strip of brown river. The site of Jesus’s tomb was mobbed by a line of tourists waiting in swaying, impatient lines that reminded me of the rollercoaster line at Six Flags. Outside, tour guides waited for their groups, smoking cigarettes in the sunlight that crashed over the concrete, painted the sides of the walls—the strongest sun I had ever encountered. After we entered the Garden of Gethsemane church through a grove of olives that looked much smaller than in my imagination, a priest shushed us violently, his reprimand washing into the high rafters. Walking through the notorious Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Sha’rim, sweltering in his long sleeves, I watched a small boy with blue eyes hissed at me and covered his brother’s eyes. The two boys were under five, dressed in dark suits, and walking alone down streets running with wind and trash. Printed bulletins begging women to respect the residents’ way of life and dress modestly had loosened from the wall and flew down the streets like paper birds. An empty doll’s carriage—a child’s lost toy—tugged against a wall, cornered by wind, before a shift in the wet breeze sent it careening down the road, its wheels spinning inches above the ground as if in a cartoon. I didn’t feel connected to any of it.
“It is wonderful,” said the man.
“Yes!” I chirped, blinking back tears.
Ben made his confession two days before I left Israel.
“Why are you telling me this here?” I asked. We sat in the basement cafe at the Holocaust Museum—a room of white tiles and white tables. Ben looked at his hands and said nothing. We were alone except for an older couple sharing a banana split near the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out to a circular driveway where tour buses pulled away from the museum entrance in exhausted lines. The café was silent except for the clatter of coins into the cash register till in the back room and the hum of fluorescent lights over the tables, the floor, and the ice cream tubs sealed and cold under domed glass.
“I feel like I have to be honest,” Ben said. He held his ice cream cone in one hand, the other hand flat in the middle of the table, expecting me to reach for it.
The sound of coins dropping was replaced by a laugh. The woman who scooped our cones minutes before had propped her feet up on a chair, the money till in front of her, a cell phone pressed to her ear. She slammed the door shut with one foot when she looked up and realized I was staring at her. The man near the window muttered something to his companion in Russian. She said nothing, but spooned up part of his banana. A security guard peeked around the corner, glared at us, and then turned away toward the museum entrance, shouting at someone.
“Emily,” Ben said, smiling too, as if he’d told me something different—a joke perhaps—and he’s desperate for us to share in the punch line. I stared at the couple, at the man’s bald spot, and at the sun bobbing in the air, scorching everything. I took one lick of my ice cream—a too-rich vanilla—and stayed carefully tucked into my chair.
We’d been at the museum since it opened eight hours earlier. We’d moved slowly through each room, each taking notes in small journals. We watched every video that played at fifteen-minute intervals behind heavy curtains, and squinted at the historical timelines printed into the walls. “It’s possible my aunt was in that transport,” he whispered to me as we read about the fate of an entire community in a small town in Poland. He studied life-size images of people traveling single file into ditches as a video of a spitting Hitler played over and over again in a curtain-free corner. We both paused briefly at a video acknowledging that the Lutheran church— my church, my former church—had just recently apologized for its collusion with the German government during WWII. I walked with him, trying to experience this place through his prism, his history, thinking I was just about to adopt this history as my own. But how?
Finally, after I convinced him that we’d seen enough and could skip the final rooms at the end of the museum’s long gray corridor, we walked through glass doors to stand on a balcony balanced on a steep hill. In the distance, Jerusalem: a snail shape of gray and brown buildings winding around land that had been endlessly changing hands in a grabby parade of wars.
Shrub grass poked up near the edge of the concrete wall where Ben and I leaned, our elbows touching. A few couples wearing sun visors and belly packs spoke intently to one another in Italian. The ground below us pulsed with insects. “Imagine,” he said, but imagination was a failed enterprise; even numbness had no meaning. I would never be able to do anything with the notes I took. They were half-formed ideas, streaks of pen, a capital “T” and then a page of white space.
“Em? Do you understand that I’m just trying to be honest? That I don’t want us to have any secrets?” I looked at the woman, who threw her plastic spoon into the dish, where it landed almost soundlessly. The man thrust both hands in the air and said something I imagined might translate as, “What do you want from me?”
I longed for the bright distraction of a shopping mall or a chain restaurant or some other anonymous place that didn’t feel like spinning in some bowl of a world beyond anyone’s comprehension.
I stood up, walked to the trashcan in the corner, and dumped my ice cream. I felt petty and combative. “Let’s go,” I said. Ben gave me a look that said please, and then all four of us, in this café in the middle of the world that documented the end of the world for so many, looked up and listened to a pre-recorded announcement in Hebrew as if it were God telling us that the place will close in five minutes.
On the bus back to our hotel, the teenager on the other side of the aisle was reading a novel. An Orthodox man snoozed lightly in front of me. His head snapped up each time the bus hit a bump in the road, his payot swinging gently back and forth like ropes in an abandoned playground.
“Are you okay?” Ben asked. My body was angled away from him as I looked across the aisle at the teenager’s book, slowly deciphering the first few lines. Some kind of fantasy novel. I wished I could read it in one gulp.
Back in Jerusalem, the early evening sun punched through the cheap curtains of our hotel room to expose the contents of our suitcases piled together in one corner. I flipped on the air conditioner and stepped inside the narrow tunnel of cool air. While Ben took a shower, I lit a cigarette (a holiday indulgence) and leaned out the window. A few Orthodox girls, their arms linked, strolled out of the clothing store that catered to the signature, prescriptive style (long jean skirts and long-sleeved cotton shirts, brunette wigs in 1940s coifs, colored hair scarves). A vendor closed the iron door of his falafel store with a rattle. A drunk man broke an empty beer bottle on the side of a building. Slowed by the day’s heat, people moved up the sidewalk with shopping bags balanced on their wrists. The spiky shadows of feral cats slunk around corners before shooting out of doorways to claw and hiss at one another in the center of the street. A security guard perched on a stool at the entrance to the bar beneath our hotel (PARTY EVERY NIGHT! the banner promised), rifling absentmindedly through the bags of the young girls who stepped through the door, resplendent and ridiculous in their glittering tank tops and tight jeans, their eyes bright as stars in the fading light. A mosque bellowed out the prayer time in the distance as the setting sun pulled down cool air like a shade.
Ben emerged wearing flip-flops, a towel around his slim waist, his dark hair slicked back, all the heat washed from him.
I sat down on one of the two twin beds that we had pushed together, kicked off my sandals, and turned on the television. I flipped through the channels, hoping to find an episode of Law and Order or an American sitcom. Anything familiar, on a loop, repetitive, safe.
Ben perched on the edge of the bed. The towel drooped between his legs, a thin roll of flesh doubled at his waist. Water dripped from his chest hair onto his thighs. He looked so sheepish that I wanted to soothe him; so childish I wanted to scream. “When did it happen?” The television channels flash by in a staccato dance of shapes and light.
Ben folded his hands in his lap. On television I settled on the International Strong Man competition. A bright British voice called out the challenges as Hebrew subtitles scrolled quickly across the screen. I stared at the letters, matching translation with sound, thinking with sudden concentration about how Arabic looks like ink spilled on paper, just an accident of shapes rolled into life under the back and forth motion of someone’s hands.
“Can you turn that down?” Ben asked. I didn’t touch the remote. A man with a name that sounded like a myth walked across a gymnasium with a refrigerator on his back.
“The dates of your little infidelities, when were they?”
“They weren’t exactly infidelities. They were just dates,” he said. “Stupid, innocuous dates. No kisses. No cheating.”
“No kisses. No nothing.”
“No kissing, no sex.”
“No! God, no.” He shook his hand. “Hand holding at the most. Sometimes a hug. I put my arm around a girl once. I was just playing a part.”
“Can you put on a shirt or something?” I asked. The men on television were grotesque and mesmerizing. The next contender made it halfway across the room before the appliance slid from his back. Sweat ran down his cheeks. His thigh muscles quivered like a pouting, miserable lip.
“Sure.” Ben grabbed a T-shirt from the floor and pulled it over his head. It still ached to look at him.
He looked at the bed, at me, at his pale, wonderful hands. “I didn’t like any of those girls. Nothing happened.”
“Not girls. Young women.”
“What does that even mean? Young women are girls. Girls wear pink shirts and polka dots and get their ears pierced at the mall. They giggle in groups. They’re girls. What age? How young?”
“I don’t know. Young. Twenty? Sometimes younger. All of them were legal.”
“What a comfort. Thank God they were legal.”
“I just want to be honest,” he said. “I feel so guilty, I have all this guilt. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
As sweat popped on his forehead, I noticed that his hairline had visibly receded in the few months we’d been apart. Neither of us was so young anymore. I was thirty-three, and he was twenty-seven. Young, but not so young. We’d talked about getting engaged, building a life together. I could see now that these discussions would never be more than that. On television a bald man tried to pick up an anvil with one hand. He strained, dropped it, cursed. The other contestants paced along the sidelines, staying warm for competition. “It’s just…I had to tell you. All this guilt I feel today. My mom.”
“Don’t blame this on her,” I said. “What happened to your family doesn’t give you license to be a prick.”
“I’m just trying to explain!”
I tossed the remote control against the wall, but the channel didn’t move. The air conditioner gulped, disturbing the edges of the curtains. Someone called out to a friend on the street below; I heard them kiss one another’s cheeks with coordinated slaps. I walked into the bathroom and resisted an adolescent urge to slam the door.
The bathroom was steamy and rank. I turned on the shower and let the water thrash against the curtain, crying as quietly as I could. I felt the soft thud of Ben’s forehead as he set it against the door. “Come out,” he pleaded. “Please. Talk to me.” A riot of applause exploded from the television. Someone had won.
I was trying not to make a sound, inhaling as I had learned to do on long runs: in through the nose, out through the mouth. I wished I could reel my limbs in.
“I need you to forgive me,” he said from the other side of the door. “I want to be with you. Please. I love you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Please.”
When I was an acolyte, I assisted my father with communion on the first Sunday of each month. I followed him, a row of communicants kneeling before the two of us. This was in rural Wyoming, so their shoes smelled of snow and gravel in the winter, their hair of sweat and grass in the summer. I knew the tops of their heads so well I could tell when they’d changed their parts, dyed their hair, or when the circumference of a bald spot had widened. I knew who took the grape juice instead of the wine from the center of the round serving tray of tiny glasses. My father knew more: he knew their individual addictions and much, much more about their fears. He placed his hands on the heads of children and whispered blessings into the air, the organ’s careful accompaniment pedaling the words into the hushed room. “We’re spiritual gymnasts,” I once overheard my father saying on the phone. “We give out blessings and forgiveness like we’re doing backflips.” When Ben asked me to forgive him, he knew what I would say. If I let him keep begging I would stop wanting him, which was a loss I felt wholly unprepared for, like being mugged in broad daylight, that quick unraveling of certainties that had previously been taken for granted: safety, independence, choice. I wasn’t ready to be free, to let go of the fantasy that I could change my life with a name. I turned the shower off and stood up.
“You’re forgiven,” I said before he could go on.
“I’ve been faithful while I’ve been here,” Ben said as I opened the door and squeezed past him. He followed me to the bed. “Can I touch you?” he asked, and I nodded, lying down on my side, but when he positioned himself in the slight space between the two beds and put his head on my shoulder and his arm across my chest, I moved away and took just his hand, holding it loosely on the bed behind my back, the cheap blanket rough against my wrist. A man named Igor was crowned as the international strong man. We watched the ceremony in silence. Tugging at their tight leotards, the competitors bowed their heads to receive their medals.
“Their necks look like tree trunks,” I said, my voice wavering.
Ben sighed into my back, his breath hot, and said, “I swear to you it will never happen again.”
That night Ben kept talking long after the bar beneath us closed and people rolled into the street where their voices rose in a riot of languages. He told me the names of the girls and that he had met them online. (“Unoriginal, I know,” he said, as if that mattered.) He told me it was a compulsion, an escape, like a terrible television movie in which both the satisfaction and comfort lie in the lack of surprise, in the ability to anticipate each emotional moment, every reversal of feeling. He told me that he was often late coming to my apartment where I sat waiting because he’d been entertaining the young women with whom nothing had happened. “Just having drinks or dinner,” he said. “That’s it. And none of them could hold a candle to you.”
I thought of Ben’s grandmother, who in 1940 stood in an Amsterdam synagogue and handed her baby to a stranger as if her daughter had only been hers to watch for a while and this other woman with different colored hair—slowly walking away down the center aisle in her worn heels, making soothing noises that the mother knew would never soothe—was the rightful parent. I see her stay through the long-standing prayer, tipping her torso left and then right, her arms so light it’s as if they’re disappearing, her heart beating fire. I thought of Ben’s mother, hidden in the countryside for nearly five years, a baby growing into a child. When she finally returned home, she did not recognize the thin woman who held out her arms, calling her by a name she no longer knew. She kept the statues of Catholic saints she’d been given as gifts lined up on the windowsill next to her bed. A cheap cross dangled below her collarbone for three years. A skinny girl on her knees each night, her hands folded in prayer to the wrong God while her mother listened, desperate, on the other side of the door, thinking: We should have let her stay. We should give her back. Before her death last year, when I’d asked Ben’s grandmother how she’d felt during those years, hiding herself, posing as Christian with her blond hair, bringing food to her dark-haired husband who never left the top room of a farmhouse, and she said, I felt hunted. I felt like an animal. Ben began repeating himself, starting again from the top of the list of his sins—so small, so silly compared to so many others.
“Let’s put it behind us,” I said. “Please. I forgive you.”
Ben fell asleep quickly and I lay awake, remembering his phone call on a Saturday in the middle of the night just a month into his stay in Israel. In a panicked voice he’d told me he was thinking more seriously about becoming Orthodox. He wanted to discuss it with me, said that his time in Israel had changed him. He was thinking more and more about his mother, he said, about her narrow escape during the war, and about his responsibilities as a Jew. I glanced at the clock—four a.m. Falling in the moonlight, snow accumulated slowly outside my basement window in a dark drift.
“Talk me out of this, babe,” he’d half-begged me. “What am I thinking?”
And I’d said dutifully, “You’re not religious. You’re swept up in your surroundings. Totally normal.”
“But I might be religious someday. I don’t know. What if I decide to be Orthodox? What will I do about you?”
“You won’t,” I promised. “You don’t want to.” But I couldn’t fall asleep after I’d said good night. As the snow darkened my window entirely, I thought about his question. Me: The thing weighing us down. He never brought it up again. Now, just a few hours before daylight, as the sun climbed the red curtains, I looked at Ben’s face and part of me believed I deserved his betrayal.
As we headed downstairs for breakfast the next morning, Ben stopped and turned around, notching his chin over my shoulder. “Thank you,” he said. I felt the weight of his head as if I was holding it in my hands. “I feel so much better. I needed to tell you. We’re okay now.” Sunlight spiked hot and clear through the skinny window at the landing. I nodded in the face of his exuberance, feeling savage and absurd.
We took our final tour: the Dead Sea. We rode in a hot bus through the Judean Desert, where King David once stumbled around shamefully, doing penance among the heat-soaked rocks. “Inside these caves he hid,” our guide said into a sputtering microphone, pointing out the window as if identifying David’s exact ancient location. It was hard to imagine practicing the art of hiding here. We traveled through open space between two spinning disks of earth and sky. Every change in terrain registered: a darker desert plant here, a cloud pooling over a rock formation here. Cave openings were obvious and vast. It was like standing on a dark street, looking through the lit windows of a house and watching as a family ate dinner. Watched TV. Washed dishes and took off their shoes. Argued.
The Dead Sea itself looked about as glamorous as an outdoor pool at an interstate Motel 6. The concrete changing rooms resembled a prison. The air felt greasy with the smell of wet sand, perfume, and the clammy smell of private places swathed in wet polyester and sweating in the heat. People returning from the sea left watery footprints on their way back up the stairs, like sea creatures released from their rightful homes to temporarily enjoy life on dry land.
Ben emerged from the men’s changing room in his trunks. “Ready?” he asked, and gave my hot pink bikini an approving nod. I wrapped a towel around my waist, and together Ben and I descended the wooden steps and walked out to the beach where the sea spread, a dense thicket of blue salt. Bodies bobbed in the water like corpses that had just been discovered in a city’s decrepit dock. People flapped their hands in the water, rolled back and forth like clumsy seals. I was so disappointed with this last piece of Israel I could hardly speak.
At one end of the beach, where the black mud was deepest, visitors emerged like prehistoric people. Like Adam stepping out of the hand of God, fully formed but completely new: wet, fresh, and bloodied by mud, his slimy footprint visible on every surface crossed, anxious to find a mate and name some animals. People waited in civilized lines at a large hose in the center of the beach. Wielding the spray with glee, playfulness, or perhaps revenge, parents and partners and siblings released body after body from anonymity, the second skin rinsing away to reveal freckled shoulders, wacky tan lines, wide hips, misshapen belly buttons, a middle-age paunch. All the details of the recognizable self.
“Shall we?” Ben asked, and took my hand. To our right, two teenage girls—a brunette and a blond, one a few years older than the other—waded carefully into the thick lip of mud. Their resemblance made clear they were sisters. The brunette tentatively dipped a manicured toe into the dark muck, as if making sure it wouldn’t splash on her bikini, which she tugged at self-consciously, yanking on the bandeau top every few seconds. The blond girl slowly waded in, ankle deep. Careful to keep her balance, she squatted down to scoop up a handful of mud from the shallow water. She smeared it so tenderly on the arm of her older sister that I looked away.
Ben glanced around as if looking for another place for us to go in. “Should we find a spot that’s more secluded? Do you feel comfortable here?”
“I’m fine,” I said, but sensing his agitation, I, too, began to look around for other entry points. A fence would stop us at the far end of the beach, and the middle patch of sand was too crowded.
“The muddiest part is here,” I said, deciding, and so we waded in near the two sisters. Ben leaned over, palming the mud carefully and spreading it on my back; it was warm, the way guts would feel. He painted the backs of my legs and my arms. Carefully, with his fingertips, he drew circles around my eyes and used his open palms to cover my cheeks.
“They say it’s great for the skin,” he said. Under the weight of the mud I felt tomb-like and diminished, a smaller version of myself.
“Mom and Dad are so annoying,” the older girl grumbled.
“This mud is so muddy!” the younger girl exclaimed. She covered her sister’s back, reaching out a thin hand to grind a glob of heavy mud in her sister’s hair, where it balanced for a moment—“Ewwww,” the older girl said—and then slid down her back. Both girls laughed unselfconsciously, their mouths open, their heads tipped back.
Ben was rubbing the mud over my chest when I felt his erection against my lower belly. My feet made a suction noise as I stepped closer, straddling his feet with mine. Inside the skin he’d given me, the indignity of last night’s conversation gave way to desire. But when I turned my head to look up at him he was staring at the girls, who hadn’t stopped giggling but were swaying together, holding on to each others’ elbows.
“I’ll cover you now,” I said, stepping away from him, the mud gripping at my feet. I bent over, grabbing a fistful of mud.
I covered him quickly as if I could erase him or send him back into this mud to reappear as the man I thought I loved. Ben touched me gently on the shoulder. My face was hot beneath its baking mask of dirt and salt. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, his hands resting lightly on my hips. I outlined his mouth, pressing as hard as I could.
A sunburned man with a gym-fit torso walked over to collect his daughters. “Let’s go, girls,” he said, and as she walked past, the younger sister glanced at me and smiled.
“Do you want to float now?” Ben asked. I shook my head and told him no.
While Ben changed, I waited in the souvenir shop where an unfriendly-looking salesgirl sat behind a counter selling beer, bottles of water, Star of David key chains, and tiny Israeli flags. She turned the water-damaged pages of a British tabloid that had perhaps been abandoned by another tourist. It was late in the day and the place was emptying out. I walked around but bought nothing. The salesgirl looked up when a couple walked into the shop and began to argue.
“You could at least not drink for one day,” the woman said. Her black hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail, and she was very pregnant. “I’m telling you not to have a drink,” she said.
Is that what I should have done? Set limits as if Ben were my child? “Listen up, I’m telling you not to surf the net for age-inappropriate dates. I’m asking you not to cheat on me or look at other girls young enough to be your students, and in not so many years, your daughters.” The whole idea of it was an insult. The salesgirl chuckled when she handed the man two bottles of water. I could smell whiskey on him from across the room. I wanted to shout at both of them. All of this anger, I said to myself, crossing my arms. Take a breath. My rinsed skin felt softer, but tougher, almost waterproof, as if I might shake anything off.
On the bus ride back, Ben and I didn’t talk about what had happened on the beach. We didn’t talk at all, and in our shared silence, a sense of purpose bloomed in me. I felt ready to ask for what I wanted and demand what I needed. The moment we returned to our humid hotel room, we moved together without turning on the air conditioner to lift the mantle of moldy air in the room. The mosque called out its song, a deep energy moving slowly over the lit green wires of the minaret.
As I boarded my flight in Tel-Aviv the next day, Ben clung to me. “I’m completely recommitted to you,” he said, but I knew he was only saying this to crawl up over the ragged edge of his guilt. His breath smelled of hummus when I kissed him good-bye. After I cleared security I looked back and saw him waving, his lips bunched up. I waved once and then turned and walked to my gate.
On the flight home I watched a few movies and read a beauty magazine, taking prodigious notes about the “year’s best” beauty products that I knew I’d never buy. Finally I looked out the dark window, thinking of St. Paul, of all things, and of his conversion. On his journey to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul (then Saul) whole, without wounds in his side or holes in his hands, just a shimmering form rising up above the tops of the olive trees, inspiring faith in a lone traveler with a shadow that hustled aside every other shadow on the road. Paul changed his name and went on to new things, a different way of living, thinking, being. The story used to make me cry; I thought it was so beautiful, all that transformation, all that willing change based on faith, but now it made me angry, and I stared at the wall of darkness outside the window as if it could conjure an answer. What a luxury, I thought. Paul’s next right action is so obvious in the story, so clear: The colorless flash in the sky and the dusty earth separating in sizeable chunks beneath his feet; a blood-free Jesus speaking words of wisdom. The whole world telling him what to do. It’s more difficult to change your life, to make a decision, when God isn’t throwing out such obvious signs. What if Jesus had appeared with wounds dripping and his face in a grimace, barking out difficult demands in Aramaic? What decision might he have inspired then? How was a person in the post-Biblical age of subtlety supposed to know how to choose?
Ben seemed confused when I told him we were through. “I thought we could move on, put this behind us,” he said. “That’s what you said. You forgave me.”
“I did, but we can’t,” I said. I didn’t really know what I needed, but I knew I couldn’t be with him, as much as I still longed for him, and would for years. This recognition made me feel like an adult for the first time.
“I’m shaking,” he said, but promised nothing. As resolute as I felt, I had expected him to fight for me.
Eleven months after our last conversation, I marked Ben’s return date on my calendar. I didn’t return his calls, and I didn’t respond to his polite, carefully worded emails. “We could meet at some point in the future, if you’re comfortable with that. I would be comfortable with that, or else we can talk over email. Either option is fine with me.” Meanwhile, I surfed online dating websites when I couldn’t sleep, or at mealtimes with a TV dinner balanced on my lap. Maybe I’d land on a girl Ben might like, one he’d been with or would be. I imagined Ben on a date with her, bright and engaging, a recent graduate of Boston Latin School. It was autumn, and the evening grew chilly as they walked through Copley Square, headed to the Common. Ben looped his scarf loosely around the girl’s neck. She smiled up at him and said thank you. As they walked past the church, the pigeons flew up in a group, spreading out like a stain. I perused blonds, brunettes, redheads, ages eighteen to twenty-one. Bobby and Ashley and Leni and Nicki. There were so very many of them. It would take a lifetime to get to know them all.
Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World which was a New York Times Bestseller, and a finalist for the PEN Center Literary Award in Nonfiction. A former Fulbright Scholar, she was educated at Harvard University, Trinity College-Dublin, Saint Olaf College, and the University of Texas-Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction and Poetry. Her work has been published in Utne, VOGUE, LENNY LETTER, the New York Times, Salon, Slate, Huffington Post, the Sun, TIME, Brain.Child, the Rumpus, Role/Reboot, O the Oprah Magazine, the Nervous Breakdown, The Establishment, Bodega, Good Housekeeping, and the Los Angeles Times.