I live my life with what seems like two souls, one that lives for the days with my grandmother and one that breathes for my nights in the park. These two souls, these two hearts, they pull at my hands and tear me in two from the weight of their choice. But how much longer can I put off choosing?
The days with my Grandma are spent in a house that smells like bread and creaks when I walk. My Grandmother laughs when I tell her of my dreams.
“Hush Medeleh. That is all fine and wonderful but we have soup to cook for Shabbos.”
That’s my Grandmother’s answer to everything. “Hush Medeleh. We have to prepare for Shabbos.” My Grandmother’s life is consumed with preparing for Shabbos, the holy seventh day of the week. She’s constantly cleaning for it and cooking for it and shopping for it until sometimes I forget what day it really is. I can’t look so far ahead. My head is only concerned with what is today. I am the short-sighted Medeleh.
But on Shabbos, when we have truly lived to Saturday, when the prayers and the meals are done, my Grandmother is her own. We sit in her small living room, her in her soft armchair, me on the plastic-covered couch. Sometimes she tells me of her life in Warsaw, of her days as a child in the shtetle, the small Jewish towns in Europe during the late 19th century. She tells me of the adventures she’d get into and of the characters of the shtetle, like the stingy butcher who saved all the fats for himself and the deaf baker who never gave you quite what you asked for. I laugh with her about how her brother tried to trade a cow for a sweet and when the chickens tried to sleep in her bed during the snowstorm.
Sometimes though she talks about the Nazis and how they came into her little village and took her family away from her. About how small she became after two years in the camps. About how she and her bunkmates would count so carefully, to figure out which day was Shabbos. And how on that day, no lashes or spoiled food could wipe the smiles from their faces, because G-d had let them live another week.
But then it’s night, it’s eleven on a Wednesday, or a Thursday or maybe a Monday, and the house is asleep. I’m crawling out the window, down the fire escape, and into the dark street. I walk to the park, past the empty basketball court, past the jungle gym and I’m by the swings, in Sam’s court. Sam’s not there yet, he’s always late. I’m late too. There, on the swings and the bars, are the people of the court, anywhere between seven to fifteen guys and girls. They rag on me for being late, yelling and asking,
“What took you so long princess?” But I just smile, hug a few people and lean against the fence.
Beer, cigarettes and cheap wine go around. I decline each time. I don’t need the buzz; I get that all on my own. And then Sam arrives. Sam is the little king of our little ‘gang’. He’s cool, charming, a sweet talker, every girl’s dream and every boy’s idol. He’s also my boyfriend. Which I guess makes me Queen, although no one’s ever put it that way. Sam comes up to me right away.
“Baby,” he always says, grabbing my waist, “how you doin?”
I kiss him. He tastes like weed and licorice, like always. Someone gets up and gives him a swing; I sit on his lap, as always. The stuff gets passed his way and he chooses a few. When he offers me the wine I drink though. It feels safe and okay on Sam’s lap, everything does. Then, after maybe a half hour when it’s all gone, he tells us the plan. It can be anything as simple as wandering the neighborhood to something as scary as riding the roofs of trains or breaking into someone’s house just to watch their DVDs on their couch. It’s the group that makes it fun, the “us”ness that makes it okay. That’s what makes it living.
I almost lose myself in it, the simple purity of stupidity. It satisfies me in this primitively beautiful way. We go out and become proper hoodlums and I love it. We’ll be train-surfing and I’ll just look over at whoever’s next to me, Olivia or maybe Peter and we’ll just laugh ,laugh at the absurdity of it and also the perfectness of it. We’re living. Really living. Not just preparing for that ultimate death but embracing something more, something real, before we have to go.
Sometimes we’ll crash a house party and I’ll just find myself, red plastic cup of beer in hand, smiling so widely I can’t control it. And when some random guy just starts dancing with me or I’m hugging someone I’ve never met I just feel whole. I’ve done it. I have fit in so perfectly it’s like I came with the mold. I am right.
We finish two am, three am, not too late. We disperse, with the usual hugs and handshakes. Sometimes we’re so drugged out we can only nod and walk away. Then Sam walks me home. We’ll talk, as we always do, and I’ll remember why I date him. Then, without fail, he’ll push me into some alley and start making out, pulling at my belt. I’ll say no, he won’t listen. I’ll say it louder, he’ll keep going. I’ll say Sam, and he’ll stop.
“Why not baby? I’m not good enough for your precious ass?” he’ll whine.
“It’s not that. I just don’t want to,” I’ll say, looking down as I adjust my jeans, “I wanna wait till marriage, that’s all.”
He’ll sigh, laugh and punch my arm, a little too hard to just be playing.
“Stuck up little Jew girl” he’ll mutter, but I know he’s joking. “Fine, this time. Let’s go baby. You’re lucky I love you.” He’ll say and he’ll take my hand and walk me to my fire escape. Then we’ll kiss and he’ll go home, I’ll climb upstairs to my bedroom.
But I won’t go to bed. I’ll sit there and think. It’s not like I’m the only virgin out there, it’s not that big. I may be the only virgin in the ‘gang’ but no one else knows that. If I can give Sam anything, it’s that he’s not an ass. He keeps things to himself. But I think, I know, my luck will run out, Sam won’t be nice forever. And plenty of girls will do him, no question. So why do I risk it?
I went to a little bible school when I was younger, and they taught us a lot of things. I remember learning no sex before marriage. I also remember learning no touching boys before marriage and no girls wearing pants, but some reason I chose that. I do that a lot, picking a choosing, deciding how Jewish I wanna be. Sometimes I don’t even know if I am, if I’m anything at all.
I’m so many things I lose track. I’m a school’s student, a group’s friends, a guy’s girlfriend, a dead man’s daughter, and always, always a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter. The granddaughter of a woman who almost died for her god, for her people, for her beliefs. And sometimes I’m scared I’m just throwing all that away for cheap thrills and a smooth-talking boyfriend.
I wanna be like everyone else, the girls in magazines, the girls all around me. I wanna be a shiksa goddess, in a mini-skirt and tube top, blonde hair and big boobs. I wanna be an American, a full-blown American girl who goes out Friday nights instead of spending them with her grandmother. But every time I leave I see that girl, that silly little me, dressed in her best, going to bible school. I hate her. She everything I don’t wanna be, a stereotype of a little proper Jewish girl, hair in braids, skirt below the knees. She’s gonna grow up and marry a nice Jewish boy, have fifteen kids, be a f-ing Aishet Chayil (woman of valor), and live happily f-ing after. She’s everything I’ve sworn not to be.
But I can’t let her go. She’s my mother, and my grandmother before her, she’s my lifeline, my link to the past, my link to my proper future. She’s my link to my people, my god, my beliefs. She’s my happy ending, the fairytale they always told me, always planned for me. I look at myself in my jeans and ripped tee, too many holes in my ears, too much makeup on my eyes and I’m so lost. I don’t know where I am, what I want, what I am. I know what I am, I’m free. Free from the burdens that trapped my mother, free from the pains that almost killed my grandmother. I’m free. Free and alone. And then I cry.
Some nights the crying never ends, these endless tears over the perfect boyfriend, caring friends and popularity. I’ll fall asleep and wake up, feeling the sun’s shame judging me. I’ll get dressed and go to school where I’m okay and cool and protected by the beautiful bubble of popularity that Sam radiates over me. No one will call me Jew-girl and I’ll eat a cheeseburger for lunch. I’ll be happy and smiling and an example of the American dream, beautiful on the outside and tearing at the walls on the inside.
But on some nights, like tonight, my Grandmother hears me; tonight she comes inside. She sits beside me and holds me, rocking me back and forth, like a baby.
“Hush Medeleh. I am here. I am with you.” Forever and always. No matter how much you want to, I’ll never let you forget.
Age 15, Grade 10
Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Brave