C-130J Super Hercules aircraft assigned to the 317th Airlift Group, Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, help U.S. Army and British paratroopers perform a static line jump at Holland Drop Zone in preparation for Combined Joint Operational Access Exercise 15-01 at Fort Bragg, N.C., April 11, 2015. This is the largest exercise of its kind held at Fort Bragg in nearly 20 years and demonstrates interoperability between U.S. Army and British army soldiers, U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard and Royal Air Force airmen and U.S. Marines. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sean Martin)
If you’re a longtime Hevrianik, you might remember me writing a serial. It started with a post called Cross-Country Lesbian Hasidic Road Trip, which basically angered everyone in the world: the people who expected it to be full of immoral sex and didn’t want to read it, the people who did want it to be full of immoral sex and discovered there wasn’t any, the people who wanted it to be a Hasidic rant in favor of female queer relationships (totally valid, and maybe one day I’ll get around to it, although there are definitely people better equipped, both halachically and sexually, to write it than I).
What it WAS, mostly, was a story about my big old friend Elyse and her dog Joey and me watching football and driving across the country in an even bigger, older, SUV. If you read my memoir, Yom Kippur a Go-Go (short review/spoiler: I move to San Francisco, date a stripper and join a basketball team full of boys who used to be girls) then this story is a bookmark between what came before and what comes next.
Then I stopped working on it for a bit. There were other things to write about: Crown Heights candy shops and streets named after genital orifices and graphic-novel adaptations of Mishnayos. But the truth was: I didn’t know where to go next.
Oh, I knew where we physically went. That was easy — I mean, this was memoir. It happened. One way or another, I made it across the country and got to a computer and started writing about it.
But the next part is mostly my thoughts. And thoughts, well, when you’re breaking the trip down in little episodes it’s harder to create a narrative arc out of just thoughts.
I’m gonna try to do it, though. If you’re down, keep reading. If not, I promise, the next part will be me trying to make Shabbos in a tent and messing up badly, and will probably have an action sequence. And after that: Midwest bars! Yeah!
I woke up in the desert before anyone else did. That windswept air, that unfamiliar crispness. What was that? It was nature. I brushed Joey’s paw off my face and crawled out of the tent.
I prayed hard while tiny lizards swirled around my feet. I didn’t worry about how long it took or what I would do afterward, and maybe I prayed for hours or maybe it was just the regular time, or faster, because the words became a whirlpool and went faster and faster, I almost understood them, I understood them by their sounds only, I understood them on a primal level, nothing else mattered.
Now I am married and wear a tallis to pray, a great white blanket that requires a lot of space to put on, but back then there was nothing between the world and me, nothing to separate us. All I had was my tefillin, which are like a pocketknife. You unspool them, you wrap them on, you tuck yourself inside so nothing remains of you in the rest of the world. I was in the desert but I may as well have been on an ice floe, in the mall. Several times I was to pray mincha in gas stations or Walmarts and have people stare at me, and sometimes I froze up or fell out of my devotion.
Not that morning. That morning I was all G-d’s.
I felt no resistance. Nothing to hurry me along, no looming deadline at the end of it, only a vague fear that the rest of the world would wake up and find me.
The sky was an unreal blue, the kind of blue you think only exists as a crayon. Some people, they see this kind of blue every day. I couldn’t trust my senses. There were only two colors, blue and sandy red. Everything was so simple, so reduced. I was used to the city, a million noises, every smell that existed, you had to tune out everything.
What shocked me most was the vastness of it — in one direction there was a red sandy hill (I, as a city dweller, immediately thought mountain), but for three-quarters of everything I could see, there was nothing but sky. I felt surrounded by it, lost in it, I thought I was going to tumble head over heels, reverse gravity and fall up into it. With no buildings, how do you know which way gravity is supposed to pull you? I needed something to strap me in. In my hand was the bag with my prayerbook and tefillin. I unreeled the black leather, wound it around my muscle and arm and head, tucked the end of the cord in tight today.
At home — my old home — I wasn’t anywhere near this good about praying first thing in the morning. The Talmud said that you could drink coffee first if you needed, and it was good to study some Torah before praying. I was off caffeine, so I’d drink orange juice from the carton on the back stoop, and I’d write, just to get my brain flowing, and I put on music to get me all spiritually riled up and then I’d keep writing till I looked at the clock and noticed it was almost midday, almost technically no longer morning, and then I’d hustle to squeeze it all in before I got sealed out of the eternal gates of the morning.
Here morning felt like it would last forever. Everything was so big that it made San Francisco feel tiny, like it was only a city; and here was so bright that it burned away all the shadows. It was like a beach. Only, it was the desert. Whatever. What it wasn’t was a shady bar, a night train to my girlfriend’s, the fogginess of beerswept memories. The sun was out and it was burning away my past.
When I finished, I stowed my tefillin bag by the tent and went wandering.
Even here — a million miles from San Francisco, in the middle of a desert, with no identifying features but yellow sand and blue sky and the jagged Joshua trees — even here everything reminded me of something. Skull Rock, the underground cave that held the treasure in The Goonies, my favorite movie ever, about being twelve years old and free of obligations and completely powerless and able to do anything. The Joshua trees themselves, which made everybody think of the U2 album, but reminded me of a bolt of lightning, that momentary demon of fire and electricity, caught and frozen forever, paralyzed and powerless.
We spent an entire day in a car talking. Now I walked for hours in silence. The conversation came back to me in stitches and moments, the way you get flashes of a movie the day after seeing it. Had I said those things? Had I gone on about my ex-girlfriend, from whom I was currently fleeing, for over an hour, without asking Elyse anything about herself? Had I embarrassed myself in front of her, a friend, not even a good friend, not one of those people you’re instantly drawn to or connect with or even have a valid excuse to be friends with? We were stuck in a car together. That was the extent of our mental connection. It didn’t seem fair — fair to her, fair to my stories — to burden her with my existential angst.
It wasn’t her fault I got myself into a lousy relationship. To be a writer is to be constantly emoting, and to constantly emote is to constantly burden the people around you. We come up with strategies, protection mechanisms, clever and funny and endearing ways to say it. We work our magic, and sometimes it is even endearing magic — spinning self-pity into flirtation, embarrassment into humor, humiliating ourselves as the subject of a story that’ll have half the people at the bar shaking off their stools in laughter and the other half fighting to buy you a drink, but that’s not who we fundamentally are. We are fundamentally that person in that story, the clumsy tripping antiheroes, the villains, the people who never get it right. The reason we can tell these stories so well is because we have so much practice in screwing up. We can’t do anything else well, but at that we are masters.
On the way back I saw a giant turtle at a crossroads, sprawled out with its legs hugging the sand, as much of its body outside of the shell as it ever could. That was me: no matter how much I try to be malleable or social or accommodating, I’m still 90% stuck inside myself. Then I realized, it was just sunbathing.
By the time I was done my walk, I had my apology to Elyse memorized. It was all wrapped up in my head, ready to be signed, sealed, delivered. I was freeloading on her. I couldn’t drive, had no credit card and barely enough cash to offer to split gas, no map skills to speak of and I’d never even set foot between the coasts. I appreciated her bringing me here. It was great to ride, great to hang out, I’ll just slip into town and take a Greyhound home.
Near the campsite I smelled frying eggs and bacon. Okay, I thought, this is how we do it. This is the last straw. I’m just gonna let her eat her protein, watch her and let the guilt sink in, and go quietly upon my way.
Elyse looked up from the eggs and offered me a lazy smile. “Sorry I slept so late,” she said.
“It’s fine! You did all that driving yesterday — I understand totally –“
“Nah. I felt bad about the car, all I did was talk about my ex. I’m just boring and depressed. You deserve better than that. Here, take a plate.”
She held a tin plate in my direction, and I recognized it as the other half of the pan on the fire: she was cooking with my mess kit.
“Elyse, you know I don’t…”
“I woke up and took a walk over to the commissary. They have that, whaddya call it? Fakin’ bacon? I thought we could use a few strips. I hope it’s not, um, anti-Semitic or anything.”
Anti-Semitic? Oh, it was such the opposite. When I lived in San Francisco, when I was the only Jew in my house, fake-meat breakfast food was my ultimate comfort food. That was the exact comfort I needed right now. That, and listening to somebody’s stories that were not my own.
“Tell me more,” I said, taking the plate, sitting down, digging into the facon with my bare oily hands. “Tell me anything. Tell me about your last girlfriend.”