Ari’s little brother became Orthodox. None of us knew what to make of it. It was almost like he’d become Hindu, or a Trekkie, or an assassin — there were rules about this and rules about that, rules about everything, literally everything in the world that he did, he did different than he used to. It was almost like having a weird foreign cousin, like Mork or Balki Bartokomous, except just a few weeks ago he used to be Shaquille O’Neal.
Ari and us were also feeling out each other, testing the limits and bonds of our new and strange relationships, an intense Best Friends Forever feeling that, once we stopped to think about it, was only a couple of weeks old.
Last month we’d all gone on March of the Living together. Side by side we’d gone walking through concentration camps, reacting to the horrible immediacy of a pile of human hair that came up to our shoulders and filled a good-sized room, strolling in and out of gas chambers, all of us teenagers, not quite ready for college but ready to get out of town, and this is where we’d gotten to.
And then we came back home. And then it was summer.
We had strong feelings. Feelings we didn’t know how to put a name on. Feelings we didn’t know what to do with. Ari and Haley started going out. Ari and Dasha, both going away to college the next year in New York, decided they would be housemates, split an apartment off-campus.
Then Dasha and I started going out. In our little group of four I sat on her lap as she stroked my hair, her possessive and demonstrative about this type of relationship neither of us had ever contributed to before.
Ari’s little brother passed by. Flirtily, Dasha reached off my lap to the yarmulke on his head. She lifted it up a couple inches and peered underneath. She flashed me a grin, the wickedest thing I’ve ever seen. Ari’s little brother froze in place. One foot wavering up in the air. Most people would’ve fallen over, probably, but he was a jock so he had better balance than mere mortals. He stretched his palm out to Dasha. “Can I have that?”
Her wicked smile retargeted itself to Ari’s brother. “Do you always wear this, always?”
He stopped in his tracks, flabbergasted by the suddenness of not being ignored. At once he recited, like a mantra: “There’s the 4 S’s. Swimming, sleeping, showering, and that other S that you do in the bathroom.”
Ari’s little brother was 13, a jock, a nerd. Yeah he spent most of his waking hours playing sports, but he was one of those jocks who never stop practicing, the ones who really care about the sport of it, the ones who are in it for the right reasons, not just getting muscles to impress girls and beat up kids like me — not that I had any idea what that was like. But I got it.
And that, maybe, was where his religious mania came from.
We laughed. We laughed harder than was necessary, harder than made sense.
He hung out with us for a little. Then Dasha produced a J — Dasha was the sort of magician who could produce a J any time you wanted one, and she could tell any time you wanted one, or maybe it was just that she always wanted one — and we all went out to the balcony, and Ari’s little brother left us there. I wanted to ask him was it against Orthodox Judaism or if it was just because he was underage, but the question didn’t occur to me until way after we were blitzed and the pattern of the balcony railing was having its own conversation with me.
A few weeks passed. Ari’s little brother morphed: his clothes changed from plaids and patterns to blacks and whites. He walked around the house a lot, a basketball in one hand and a prayer book in the other, and after some point it was just a prayer book. Dasha always grabbed the book from him and tried to sound out words. She would flip to the next page and say she was going to give away spoilers. It never worked as well as she wanted it to, mostly because her Hebrew was pretty wretched. Once she kept trying and retrying a word that all the rest of us knew was “baruch.”
One Friday we had all taken off early from our summer jobs. We were back on Ari’s parents’ porch in bathing suits and no shirts. We’d started taking turns spraying each other with the garden hose. It was the middle of a heat wave. Midafternoon faded to late afternoon, and pretty soon Ari stood up and was like, “I’m going to have to ask you all to go now.”
At first we thought he was kidding. He said it so formal and well-prepared that it must have been a joke. Then he turned off the music and said it again.
We were like, what?
“You know, it’s gonna be sundown soon,” he said. “I gotta get ready for Shabbat.”
Dasha whipped my shirt from my side and tied it around her hair and cheekbones and chin. “Me too,” she said. “You have maybe some candles I can do the lighting on?” Being as though she was wearing a bikini, it didn’t have the intended effect one hundred percent.
“No,” he insisted, “I’m serious,” and in the whiny way he said serious, we could tell with a jolt of surprise that he was.
Minutes later, on the street, we all felt like we’d been violated in some unknowing and unsettling way. Hadn’t we been to hell and back together, hadn’t we looked death in the eye? Didn’t we all still smell the leather of the hundred thousand shoes, the mountains and mountains of hair? We’d gone through all that. There was no G-d there. We hadn’t seen G-d. All we had to lean on was each other.
Haley listened to Dasha and I rage and didn’t say anything. She just had her hands in the pockets of the cutoffs she’d slipped on a second before leaving. Then she said she’d better get home, her early-admissions college apps were due and she was going to pull an all-nighter working on them.
I slipped my arm through Dasha’s, old fashioned-style, and asked her what her plans were for the evening. I suggested maybe we could pull an all-nighter of our own.
She looked uncomfortable and shifted, as if I was burning through her with heat vision instead of just checking her out. She looked like she was about to tell me we were breaking up, and then instead she told me she had plans.
“What are your plans?” I said. “Can I come along?” I thought about saying, I could fit inside your pocket, but something told me that maybe this wasn’t the right time.
“No,” she said, “I’m going to synagogue.”
“With Ari?” I said, and she said, “Yes, but not like that,” and I didn’t know what not like that meant, not then, not yet, or maybe I did know and just didn’t want it to be true, or maybe I did know and just wished, in the moment, that it was the other way, because the other way at least I’d know how to deal with, and “Not like that?” I repeated, and “Not like that?” I said again, and then I said it over and over but by that time she’d left, given me a peck on the cheek, which was worse than no kiss at all, and I realized I was saying it so much it was like I was asking the universe to make it true, I was praying it was true, but if that was out of my hands then there were so many things out of my hands that I might as well never have tried to shake the world by throwing away the summer with Ari and his little brother or going out with Dasha or by traveling halfway around the world to visit concentration camps at all.
photo by Ace Armstrong