The rabbi had addressed the e-mail to the entire congregation.
He had written what needed to be said, and after years of tinkering with his phrasing, with the composition of his thoughts, he found nothing more to fix in the message, and so all there was to do was wait for night. He used a finger to push open the blinds; sundown wasn’t far away.
His temple-goers had likely begun their pre-Sabbath walk to the temple. The men would be walking ahead of the women, fathers explaining to their sons the message in a particular story of the Torah. A nearby Goy, a Chinese restaurateur who every Friday evening witnessed the parade of black suits and ankle-length skirts with an eye of unease, would see the sons nodding and think to himself that Jewish children looked so much like beardless versions of who they would inevitably become. The restaurateur had left China to avoid working the rice fields like his father had. It had turned the elder Ling into a human approximation of a scythe, his back curved and sharp, and so the young Ling saw the established path that the children’s lives had set out in front of them with a tinge of sadness.
Many might already be at the temple, filling the room with soft small talk of how business was going and of who had recently married in the modestly sized but tightly-knit Jewish community of Las Vegas. The rabbi stood from his desk, opened a prayer book and leafed through it absently, glancing at the lines of scripture as if they were part of a too often looked-at photo album. He paced around his home office, his fingertips grazing over objects which felt like foreign relics. He brought a hand to his chin, rubbing the pinprick remainders of hair he had inexpertly shaved off.
That had been his first overt act of betrayal. Leaning over the trash can, he used the shears to trim more than he ever had, the bushy mass held in one hand as the shear-wielding hand worked its way past the black jungle of tangles. After only a few snips, the beard came loose, and it was as if he had cut his Judaism away. He had forgotten what his chin looked like, how young he looked beneath the beard.
Looking down past his domed belly, the four-cornered strings of the tzitzit were conspicuously, deliberately absent, too. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d last worn a shirt without those frayed tangles poking out from beneath. With every act of betrayal, the rabbi felt lighter, as if each religious unburdening carried with it a literal weight.
The room turned orange as the desert sun began its indifferent descent beyond the horizon, its last weak rays setting the library of Jewish text lining the office ablaze, as if God was ready to unleash His hurt, love-fueled rage if the rabbi went through with his plan. Nevertheless, the rabbi brought his hand up to his yarmulke and removed it with no grand gesture, folding it in half and placing it respectfully in the top drawer.
As the tangerine glow receded and darkness gently cooled the room, the rabbi sat in front of his computer, and, not quite ready to send the e-mail, he stood back up and flicked on the lights. Across the street, a young neighbor smoking a cigarette on her balcony failed to notice the significance that the apartment she had always lived in front of was aglow in artificial light on a Friday night.
It seemed the thought had always been in his head, the letter being drafted even before he finished rabbinical school, even before he knew the letter would come in e-mail form. Others might not have studied hours to pass an exam they hoped to fail, but the rabbi couldn’t help but feel at peace in his father’s study, humming the natural melodies of the prayers. Nor could he help inscribing himself into rabbinical school in the first place; he felt loved by Judaism, comfortable in its grasp, content with the world he saw through its lenses, maybe because it was the only world he’d ever known.
Others might have married Lacey, but the rabbi had not. The rabbi hadn’t married at all, actually, and that was the topic of much controversial jibber-jabbering among the men and women of his congregation. Every woman in the temple, though she wouldn’t dare say it out loud, secretly hoped beneath her headdress that it was she whom he had always wanted, she whom could have won his kind, jovial affection, if only she hadn’t been swept off the market at such a young age by her husband, who was certainly devout and an upstanding figure and a trying enough father, but sometimes smelled badly of body odor, and rarely showed he cared for her.
The men believed that the rabbi might not be attracted to women at all, since even they could admit that he was a pleasant-looking and affable man, yet he had never proposed to any woman, not even approached a family about an arrangement. He was from a well-respected and successful family, and so could have easily rivaled any one of them as a suitor. That was probably why he had never properly courted any of the beautiful, available women in the congregation; no real interest in women, only God.
Night had fully arrived now and the rabbi said a quick prayer, for some reason choosing the prayer with which fruit is blessed. That was his favorite part of Judaism, he had decided long ago: that everything had its own blessing; that it taught you to be appreciative of each thing for what it was.
His mother, long ago, had done the same thing; spoken the prayer out of context. When the rabbi was a beardless eight-year-old, he developed a strange urinary problem. His mother would wake up to him rapping conscientiously lightly on her door (he always chose to knock on the door frame rather than the door itself, hoping to avoid unnecessary reverberations that might wake his father too), “Again?” she’d say, already climbing out of bed.
They had been living in Tel-Aviv and, lively city though it was, they rarely ever encountered any cars or pedestrians or even any light-filled windows as they walked the three blocks to the beach. The young rabbi always liked the synchronized midnight sleeping of his neighbors, the tacit understanding that night was for one thing only. He’d make up prayers for everything he saw, recite them on each midnight excursion to the beach.
As the young rabbi relieved himself onto the receptive sand, his mother would tiredly look to whatever stars were visible and say that fruit-blessing prayer. Later in life, long after he had gotten past his inexplicable inability to urinate at night anywhere other than on the beach, he couldn’t help but say the prayer under his breath as he urinated, the habit ingrained too deeply into the act for him to ever shake himself free of it.
After a trip to the bathroom (in which he took a great deal of pleasure in flicking the switch and watching the white fluorescence wash harmlessly over the room), the rabbi returned to his study, leaned over the sturdy leather back of his office chair and sent the e-mail.
* * *
Jonah had tried his luck with every girl in the club. He had attempted ironic ballroom dancing; unabashed pelvic thrusts posing as dancing; had offered drinks and flashed that charming grin Lacey had fallen in (and out of) love with, even if he felt it was too loud and dark to smile. Nothing had worked, and now he was standing in a corner, looking out at the jumbled mass of flesh and cloth.
Across the artificial smoke-filled room, Jonah caught a glimpse of Avi twirling a girl on the dance floor, taking sips from a bright blue drink and looking appreciative of every beat coming from the speakers. Avi was like that; he made good times seem effortless.
Jonah pushed his way through the crowd, turned his shoulders sideways to make himself as thin as possible and make his exit quick. Even as he weaved through people dancing and kissing, he realized that he was doing it again; leaving without a goodbye. It was his drunken flaw, and as terrible as it always felt the morning after, he couldn’t help but relapse, disappear from his friends without a word, slink out into the night and walk back home like a ghost.
More than once, it had occurred to Jonah that New York didn’t love him. He could name a handful of reasons why he thought this (he always, always entered subway stations seconds after his train pulled away), but it went beyond proof. It was simply true: New York did not love him. And so, when Avi checked them into the New York New York hotel on their Las Vegas/Lacey-forgetting vacation, Jonah had no choice but to laugh and hope that Las Vegas couldn’t replicate it all.
He left the club and stumbled into the faux Manhattan night, chased by a ringing in his ears. Taking a seat at a penny slot with a view of a crowded roulette table, he fed the machine a bill and ordered a beer from the cocktail waitress, who eyed him suspiciously and had legs like monuments to sexuality. At the roulette table, a bachelorette party whooped and chattered and, most importantly, leaned over in their low cut dresses to place their bets. He remembered the way Lacey’s breasts hung when she leaned over, remembered the exact feeling of the world when he’d cup them in his hands. It seemed to Jonah that the world was entirely made of unobtainable female flesh.
Lacey’s first overt act of betrayal had been to sprinkle nutmeg into their morning coffee. It was how she started to ward him off; two taps of bitter powder mixed surreptitiously into the things they shared.
As soon as the cocktail waitress reappeared with his beer, Jonah stood and tried to find his way out of the hotel, weaving through the machines and tables and groups of people touching each other as if the casino floor was just an extension of the nightclub, as if their entire purpose was to remind Jonah that he was not touching anyone.
Jonah had always preferred warmth, and though Las Vegas’ December chill was measly compared to New York’s, its harmlessness shining through like a good kid trying to act mean, he had wanted to be greeted by suffocating heat and instant sweat. But he pulled open the door and was greeted by the shock of desert cold. The sounds were of a city still alive: taxis honking at everyone; rowdy tourists certain that the amount of fun they were having was directly proportional to the amount of noise they were making; outdoor speakers from the casinos hoping to lure people inside, announcing five-dollar blackjack tables and improv comedy shows.
As he walked down the Las Vegas Strip, taking long swigs of beer to keep himself warm, Jonah played with the cell phone in his pocket. At Avi’s insistence, Jonah had deleted Lacey’s number, knowing full well that it was a futile act, that she was not that easily forgotten. She was not a drunken night at a club, could not be left without a goodbye.
When the beer was gone, Jonah took a seat in front of the fountain at Caesar’s Palace. Greek gods stood guard over the shallow pool, scowls etched onto their stone faces, daring passersby to reach for the coins shimmering at the bottom. Jonah pulled out his phone and didn’t even have to think about what the number was, his fingers moved across the keypad like a choreographed dance, knowing exactly where they had to go despite shivering with cold and booze.
While Jonah typed out a message, the rabbi took a seat next to him, placing a half-drunk six-pack of beer between them. Jonah didn’t notice him yet, his entire line of vision occupied by the words appearing on screen, by flashes of Lacey and her absence. He didn’t feel he was addressing Lacey; he was addressing that other woman whose love he couldn’t conjure: New York. No matter how long he had lived there, he’d always felt like a tourist, a temporary visitor privileged enough to be shown around but not enough to take up residence. When Avi had shown up at Jonah’s apartment with the plane ticket, it had been as if the city herself had purchased it; as if she, too, were saying, “It was fun while it lasted.”
* * *
Jonah and the rabbi clinked their beer bottles together. A trio of college-aged girls walked past them, all three with their high heels in hand, all three wearing short skirts and overcoats. The two men watched the girls go by wordlessly, each looking at the same contours for barely different reasons.
“There’s a lot of comfort in faith,” the rabbi said later on, when their introductions had led to stories and their stories had started unraveling like the peeled labels off the beer bottles. “It’s like being loved. After a while, it’s not a challenge. You forget it’s there, forget you’re feeling anything at all. When faith is all you know, no leaps of faith are required; which pretty much negates all that faith is about: letting go of the ground and trusting that everything will be alright when it comes to landing. If you don’t jump and you don’t land, you’re just suspended in air, floating aimlessly.”
Behind them, a car did its best impersonation of a nightclub, thumping the air around it into submission. To the rabbi, the invasiveness of the sound was a giddy anomaly. He had barely ever been exposed to such violent bass beats, his world and the world of blasting music simply never intersected. That the explosions of electronic music and reverberating glass were being allowed to do their exploding on the night of the Sabbath, coupled with the alcohol, brought on a euphoric catharsis in the rabbi. He thought back to all the stairs he’d climbed on Friday nights and decided right away to move somewhere with an elevator, so that he could witness the inconsequence electricity had on the days of the week. Maybe he would go back to New York, find the apartment of his pre-teens, ride the elevator all weekend just to indulge in the freedom, press all the buttons like he and Lacey used to do.
It occurred to the rabbi that he used to wait for quiet moments of prayer to think of her. He’d let his body take over, let his muscles mouth the holy words and bow whenever bowing was called for, all the while letting his thoughts sneak away to that unholy kiss they had shared before the rabbi’s loyalty to God made him turn her away. Now he was free to think of what he wanted and when, had no obligations to the God that had monopolized his thoughts for so long; he was unchained.
Jonah, on the other hand, felt completely enslaved to his visions of Lacey, completely devout; she was all that could possibly be thought of, everything led to her. No matter how silently he left others behind, how easily he could disappear from even those who loved him, he couldn’t make her do the same, couldn’t keep the sounds of Lacey out of his world. The bursts of music coming from the passing car carried with them thoughts of her movements. The bassline boomed with steps she took (calves he thought of as perfect and would build shrines to in his memory in the months to come); each individual sound carrying with it a specific memory; her going up the stairs toward their apartment, her walking beside him in the park, her turning away from him only a week ago, her skirt swishing above the back of her knees.
“Why now?” Jonah asked, letting the rabbi unload his story so that he wouldn’t have to think about his own, “after all that time just going through the motions, what made you decide to walk away from it?”
The wind blew a gust of frigid air past them, as if God wanted to erase the rabbi’s answer. A group of women (Shema Israel, thought Jonah, there’s so many of them) shrieked in response, grabbing a hold of Jonah’s attention away from the rabbi’s answer until they’d crossed the street, their feathered hair and slivers of winter-braving skin disappearing beyond his sight.
“…and the truth of the matter is that we have no say in any of it,” the rabbi was saying. “But if I know one thing it is this: we have an equal responsibility to those we are loved by.” He took one last swig from his beer and smiled to himself, noticing that he was on course to delivering a sermon. Putting his hands in his pockets and standing up in one fluid motion, the rabbi motioned at the lone remaining bottle with a gentle nod, “You can have that last beer.” Then he turned and walked away without further goodbye, leaving Jonah alone in front of the fountain, the statues seeming more and more like they were carved from flesh.
By: Adi Alsaid
Image: “Flamingo, Las Vegas, 1960” — Scribas