Fiction

The Shabbas Goyim

Pin it

 FICTION



















  




of
her family, there was only one story that struck Ginny as interesting.
“I never should have told her this,” her mother said at dinner, when Ginny
recounted the incident to her father with elated teenage horror.

    “Mom’s grandparents, their names were Abraham and Esther.
They came over from the Soviet Union.”

    “Russia,” Ginny’s mother interrupted, with inexplicable
melancholy. “It was Russia then.”

    “Right. They’d just gotten to the U.S., and they were
staying with relatives in New York, and Esther was pregnant with Aunt
Mimi. They were all orthodox.” Ginny jerked her head toward the open kitchen
window. Light outside, late summer, and a chorus of crickets and cicadas
pulsed through the screen. A rangy, adolescent skunk hobbled into the
backyard’s empty old barn, sparking a memory that deflated Ginny with
remorse and nausea. There were far too many leaves on the trees to see
the orthodox synagogue that bordered their property — whose members’
coming and going, mostly by foot on Saturday, represented the bulk of
Ginny’s knowledge about Judaism.


What Abraham had done, in 1905, was make Esther clean up the vomit of
his cousin — their host — who’d had some sort of flu. It had
splattered onto the floor, under the arched doorway between the living
room — where Esther and Abraham slept together on a too-narrow cot
— and the kitchen. At six months pregnant, on her hands and knees,
Esther cleaned up vomit with an old rag, while the men — both in
yarmulkes, one sick, one well — looked on. “I should have left him
then and there,” Esther sneered to Ginny’s mother, years before Ginny
would hear the story, years after Abraham’s death. “I should have walked
right out the door and never stopped walking.”

    Nearly seventy-seven years after Abraham and Esther’s
immigration, and how the world had changed. The Cold War in full throttle,
with Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher presiding. Abraham’s granddaughter
having the last name Corcoran, married to a lapsed Catholic. Abraham’s
great-granddaughter named Virginia, and at fifteen proclaiming herself
Catholic whenever she was asked. Rarely having seen the inside of a church
(both parents irreligious if not anti-), as ignorant of Catholicism as
Judaism, but somehow considering the former more glamorous. And finding
the truth — the divided background, the lack of any religion at all
— at times too complicated, at other times too simply lacking in
identity, to admit.

    “If people ask you about religion,” Ginny’s mother
once advised, “just say you’re nothing.” To her mother, who had grown
up in a world that abounded with aboveboard anti-Semitism (her childhood
marked by ration coupons and reports of atrocities from overseas) the
idea of “nothing” may have sounded like fantastic relief. But to Ginny,
it only sounded empty. A few years earlier, Ginny’s grandfather
— Abraham’s son — had visited. Senile with diabetes and premature
old age, he stood on the landing in striped pajamas, confusion wrinkling
his brow as Ginny walked up the stairs. He had looked at her face —
freckles across the narrow bridge of her nose, sandy hair skinned into
a tight ponytail — and called to Ginny’s mother, “Who is this little
shiksa?” After her initial affront, Ginny felt a prick of pleasure: at
being recognized, specifically, as something, no matter the derogatory
implication.

    The summer Ginny learned about Abraham and Esther,
she was about to switch from Chesterville’s public high school, which
was mostly Catholic, to a private school outside of Boston, forty miles
from home, which was mostly Jewish. Her parents had made the decision
precipitously last spring — following her father’s discovery of Ginny
in the barn with a boy, late one afternoon when her parents, both English
professors, should have been in class. The boy, whom her parents didn’t
know, had been fully clothed. Ginny, however, wore nothing but her socks.


Ginny accepted the change in schools as her shameful due. Over the summer,
she devoted herself to her parents’ bookshelves, whose endless stacks
and rows constituted the bulk of decor in their comfortably but somewhat
shabbily furnished old farmhouse. She assisted her father’s halfhearted
attempts to tame the overgrown wilds of their backyard. She stopped returning
phone calls from what few old friends she had: wanting instead to take
unencumbered strides toward a new and better self.

    At the end of August, Ginny went with her parents to
a family orientation meeting for the new school. She surveyed the room
for potential, wholesome friends, and had a conversation with another
student which her father overheard. “What’s Ginny short for?” the other
girl asked. And to Ginny’s answer the girl replied, with a delicate air
of consolation, “You’re not Jewish, are you?”

    “No,” Ginny told her, “I’m not.”

    In the car on the way home, her father admonished Ginny.
“You don’t want to deny your heritage,” he said, frowning at her via the
rearview mirror. “And you know, by Jewish law you’re your mother’s religion.”


    Ginny’s mother, surprisingly, intervened.

    “Why should she care about Jewish law?” her mother
said. “Ginny can be anything she wants. She can be Buddhist, or Bahai,
or Sufi for all I care. She doesn’t have to be Jewish if she doesn’t want
to be. She certainly doesn’t have to wear a yellow armband for anyone,
Jews or no.”

    “Wow,” Ginny said, from the backseat. “You’re so fervent.”


    “Not fervent,” her mother said. “Just weary of Jewish
law from a long way back.”

    “Did you find out anything about the theater program?”
her father asked, maneuvering to a less interesting topic. At the public
school, Ginny had worked on set designs and lighting.

    “No,” Ginny said. “But I’m sure it’s better. Everything’s
better at private school, right?” Expecting this comment would rankle
her parents — so cerebral and egalitarian — and make them say
something to contradict their own purported motives.

    But they barely glanced at each other. “Right,” her
mother said, sounding not at all angry, just beleaguered and grim —
inciting Ginny’s chronic pangs of sympathy and guilt.


That same summer, before starting the private school, Ginny grew three
inches. “All in the legs,” her mother noted.

    The longer legs were so new, Ginny could assess them
as if they belonged to someone else. They looked lean and fractureable,
and almost too shapely. Too noticeable. Ginny recognized them as an asset,
and at the same time felt compelled to hide them. In shorts or skirts,
she suddenly felt exposed and naked — the expanse of flesh looking
endless and unwieldy, almost obscene. Bringing back the memory of her
father, his obvious shock and heartsickness upon finding her in the barn.
So that dressing for school in the morning, Ginny found herself pulling
on baggy jeans or corduroys, an occasional ankle-length skirt.

    As a new student in long pants, the only person whose
notice Ginny drew was the girl she’d met at orientation. Her name was
Deborah Aronson. Like Ginny, Deborah wanted to avoid the cafeteria, its
status-loaded tables and chattering crowds. So they started eating lunch
together, sitting on the high stone wall that bordered the athletic fields.


    “I love what you’re wearing,” Ginny said, one afternoon
in mid-September, between bites of a turkey sandwich.

    “Thank you.” Deborah touched the sleeve of her white
peasant blouse, which she’d cinched with a belt made of hammered silver
and turquoise. Every day, Deborah wore outfits that could be costumes,
they were so varied and well-considered. Although she lived within walking
distance of the school, she’d already missed her first-period class twice,
having invested so much time in deciding what to wear.

    “My mother designed the belt,” Deborah told Ginny.
Deborah had curly, light-brown hair and a fair, rosy complexion. The most
fascinating eyes, Ginny thought: not big, but a penetrating aquamarine
that, depending on the light, could be intersected by every color in the
spectrum. On this afternoon, under a muted autumn sun, they were flecked
with the same gold as the fallen oak and elm leaves.

    Ginny and Deborah paused for a minute as a tall and
blue-eyed boy walked out of the gym, across the path below the wall. “His
name’s Vincenzo,” Deborah said, after he’d achieved a safe distance. “‘Vinch’
is what they call him.”

    “Who’s they?”

    “Cafeteria people,” Deborah said. “He lives in my building.
Not Jewish, obviously. But very cute.”

    This, the attractiveness of Vinch, Ginny ignored. “Your
mother’s a designer?” she said.

    “M-hm. And a buyer.” Deborah named a Newbury Street
boutique which was so expensive Ginny had never bothered to set foot inside.


    “Wow,” Ginny said. “What does your father do?”

    “He’s a rabbi.” Deborah tossed her tuna sandwich back
into its brown bag. “This is terrible,” she said. “Way too dry.”

    “Did your mother make it?”

    “No. Lorna, our insane maid.”

    “Do you want half of mine?”

    “I can’t,” Deborah said. “Not kosher.”

    “It’s just turkey,” Ginny promised. “Not pork or anything.”


    “Cheese,” Deborah said patiently. “There’s a slice
of cheese on it.”

    “You can’t eat cheese?”

    “Not with meat. ‘Thou shalt not cook the lamb in its
mother’s milk.'”

    “That’s beautiful,” Ginny said, honestly moved and
suddenly feeling cruel and barbaric. “Here.” She reached into her own
brown bag, searching for a less objectionable offering. “You can have
my apple.”

    “Thanks,” Deborah said. “We should go to my house for
lunch some time. It’s not far. And no one’s ever home except Lorna.”


Deborah lived in a luxury high-rise just a few blocks from school. Throughout
the apartment were studio portraits of Deborah and her younger brother,
Josh. The frames precisely matched the nubby mauve silk that upholstered
the couches and chairs. One side of the living room was lined with wallpaper
that had a raised, silver design;
the other was covered by mirrors, inlaid with the same design, and somehow
engineered to cast particularly flattering reflections — both Ginny
and Deborah impossibly long and lean, looking back at themselves. Behind
the dining-room table was another mirror, which opened electronically
to reveal a wet bar. Just off the living room were two steps that led
to a dark space with enormous stereo speakers, an entire wall of records
and a grand Steinway piano.

    It was the last place on earth Ginny could picture
a rabbi living, and she couldn’t help but say so.

    “Oh,” Deborah said, leading Ginny back to the kitchen.
Today she was dressed in what looked like a riding outfit: jodphur-cut
khakis, a cashmere V-neck, her hair pulled into a spirally ponytail. “This
stuff is all my mother’s. She does the decorating.”

    Deborah opened the refrigerator. “There’s leftover
Chinese,” she said. “Want some sweet-and-sour chicken?”

    “Sure,” Ginny said. “Is Chinese food kosher?”

    “I guess so,” Deborah said. “We try to stay kosher,
but we’re not compulsive about it.”

    “Where’s your maid?”

    “God knows,” Deborah said, with a dismissive wave.
“She’s completely nuts, she could be anywhere.”

    Dishing out lunch, Deborah explained that her father
had never really wanted to be a rabbi. “What he loves is music,” she said.
“He wanted to be a singer. He loves musical theater.”

    “So why is he a rabbi?”

    “Family pressure. All the oldest males on his side
are rabbis.”

    “That’s sad,” Ginny said.

    Every day that week, Ginny went home with Deborah and
ate leftover takeout. Sometimes Lorna the maid was nowhere to be seen;
other times she rattled through the apartment, tall and skinny in a blue
polyester uniform, muttering prayers to herself, and occasionally proclaiming
“Christ is Lord” in the midst of her indifferent cleaning.

    On Friday, Deborah and Ginny opened the front door
to find the apartment pulsing with music: the piano so loud and forceful
that the mirrors hummed and vibrated. A man’s rich tenor belted out “How
to Handle a Woman.” The tempo, Ginny thought, was several beats faster
than it should have been.

    “Shit,” Deborah whispered. “He’s home.” She led Ginny
into the music room for introductions. Halting his performance, Rabbi
Aronson put on a smile which Ginny guessed masked disappointment equal
to theirs at being intruded upon. He had the same remarkable eyes as his
daughter, and a wiry, angular build. Dark hair, and the most gentle furrows
across his forehead. Ginny felt struck by the tragedy: this being a man,
clearly, who belonged on stage.

    “Ginny,” Rabbi Aronson said, rolling the name around
in his mouth as if deciding on its taste. “Ginny what?”

    “Corcoran,” she told him.

    “Ginny Corcoran,” he repeated. “Deborah, you should
invite Ginny up to our house in the country.”

    Jews, Ginny had realized, were obsessed with last names.
They needed to immediately sort and identify. Lately she noticed this
same tic in her mother, who of all people should have known better. At
home in the kitchen that night, when Ginny mentioned going with Deborah’s
family to New Hampshire, interrupting her frown over a stack of student
essays, her mother pushed her glasses onto her forehead and asked, “What’s
Deborah’s last name?”

    “Aronson,” Ginny told her, resenting the additional
information this imparted. “Her mother’s a clothing designer.”

    “Neat,” Ginny’s mother said vaguely, turning a typewritten
page. “What’s her father do?”

    “He’s a rabbi.”

    Her mother smiled automatically, then looked out the
kitchen window, past the barn, toward the synagogue — clearly visible
these days, as the trees shed their leaves.

    “Not there,” Ginny said.


    “No, I figured.” Her mother pulled her glasses down
and fanned through her stack of papers. And Ginny could tell, doubting
she’d ever admit it, that the word “rabbi” had triggered a natural sense
of safety. That Ginny would be allowed to go with the Aronsons, anywhere,
because her mother — despite herself — could not imagine any
harm coming to Ginny, or Ginny herself misbehaving, in a rabbi’s home.


    “What did you find out about theater?” her mother asked.


    “They’re casting this week for The Skin of Our Teeth,”
Ginny said. “We’ll start working on the sets and everything once rehearsals
start.”

    “Good,” her mother said, calculating, Ginny knew, that
the time after school, plus the new commute, would keep Ginny out of the
house until well after her parents arrived home each day.


It turned out Vincenzo, the handsome boy who lived in Deborah’s building,
had a small role in the play: a police officer who occasionally wandered
across stage, swinging a billy club. Vincenzo performed his role with
the same graceful swagger he used to stroll through the cafeteria, where
Ginny had noticed him on her occasional ventures. Usually, Vincenzo told
Ginny, he played football in the fall. But his best sport was basketball,
and last summer he’d broken his wrist: so he was resting up this trimester,
swimming before lunch instead, making sure he’d be completely healed by
winter.

    Ginny had asked Deborah if she wanted to work in the
theater with her. “You could do costumes,” she’d suggested.

    “I’m joining the Jewish Culture Club,” Deborah said.
“It meets in the afternoons, too, so I can’t.”

    In theater, no one made particular overtures of friendship
to Ginny, other than Vincenzo. His last name, he told her, was Lorenzo.


    “That’s very symmetrical,” Ginny said.

    “It’s iambic,” Vinch replied, smiling, Ginny smiling
back, both aware that they’d not used these terms correctly, but pleased
at knowing them nonetheless.


The Aronsons’ country house in the White Mountains was a rustic version
of their apartment: photographs of the children but not the parents, all
the upholstery a matching plaid, braided rugs over wood floors, and landscape
paintings hung on wood paneling. An upright piano, and lots of mirrors
framed with burnished oak. Deborah and Josh each had their own bedroom,
nothing gender or age specific to distinguish them, both with bunk beds
to accommodate overnight guests.

    Josh was twelve, chubby and brown-eyed, but with a
fantastic singing voice. On the drive up, he and his father harmonized
on songs from Gershwin to John Lennon.

    “You sound so wonderful,” Ginny told them, sincerely
impressed. “You should be on Broadway.”

    “Don’t get him started,” Mrs. Aronson said. She was
precisely what Ginny had expected: glamorous and bored, with a Boston
accent, big red hair, long red nails, and a smashing outfit.

    When they arrived at the house in the late afternoon,
just before dark, Rabbi Aronson handed Ginny a stack of twenty-dollar
bills. “We’ll cross-country ski tomorrow,” he said. “We can walk to the
rental place. Ginny, you don’t mind handling the money, do you?”

    “No,” Ginny said, slightly perplexed.

    “They had me pay for everything,” Ginny told her parents
when she got home on Sunday. “I mean, they gave me the money on Friday,
but anything they bought on Saturday, I paid for. And they had me turn
the lights on and off, and the oven, everything like that.”

Ginny’s mother laughed. “You’re a shabbas goy,” she said. “Or maybe a shabbas shiksa.”

    “What’s that?”

    “Shabbas goyim are gentiles who Jews hire to run their business, or
do menial tasks on Saturday. Your great-grandfather Abraham must be rolling
in his grave.”

    Ginny remembered Esther, on her hands and knees, six
months pregnant, mopping up vomit. And she thought, let him roll.

   
“It’s kind of weird,” Ginny said. “They’re not exactly orthodox. He and
Josh don’t wear yarmulkas, and there was no Sabbath dinner. And they didn’t
tear up the toilet paper in advance, or any of the really nutty things.
Do you think they’re reform? Or somewhere in between orthodox and reform?”


    “Who knows what they are,” her mother said.

    “Or maybe they care about the rules, but only a little
bit,” Ginny said. At the synagogue, many of the orthodox Jews drove to
Saturday services and parked a block or two away — pretending to
have walked the entire distance from their homes. Lately, a lot of orthodox
families, probably tired of the subterfuge, had been buying homes in the
neighborhood. All day Saturday, while the street was lined with synagogue-goers’
cars, the new neighbors across the street and next door had dark windows,
no lights burning, as if they’d gone out of town.

    “It just seems to me,” Ginny said, “that if you don’t
believe in the rules, then you don’t believe in the religion. So why bother
at all?”

    “Why bother at all,” her father said. “That sums up
our philosophy.” But her mother sounded more sincerely exasperated when
she added, “It’s all so ridiculous, I can’t even stand thinking about
it.”

  

  

  

 








 FICTION








“I wonder what they do in New Hampshire, when I’m not there,” Ginny said
to Vinch. “If they want to cook, or buy something.” She sat up in the
lighting booth, experimenting with different color films. Vinch, having
a long gap between scenes, had joined her, and she told him about her
weekend.

    “Why not ask,” Vinch suggested.

    “We do it ourselves,” Deborah said the next morning,
between second and third period, when Ginny saw her crossing the quad.
November, the first really cold day, and Deborah wore bright red lipstick
and a short fox coat. “My mother’s,” she explained, stroking the soft
red collar. “It’s not like we think we’re going to get struck by lightening
if we buy something, or turn on the oven. It’s just better not to, if
there’s someone who can do it for us.”

    “Huh,” Ginny said.

    “Hey, I invited two girls from culture club to lunch
today,” Deborah told her. “I hope it’s okay.”

    “Of course,” Ginny said, thinking Deborah was asking
if she didn’t mind the extra company. But mid-biology, Ginny realized
she’d been uninvited. At lunchtime, she went to the cafeteria. The throng
of people, the hub and pulse of multiple conversations, discouraged her
from staying. She bought a sandwich, then went to sit on the wall by herself
— her cheeks prickling against crisp, apple-scented air, huddling
in her coat and wishing she’d worn gloves. When Vincenzo walked out of
the gym, she waved to him with chapped, red hands.

    Ginny would have taken the long route, walking up the
path to the street. But Vinch scaled the wall. He stopped just at the
top, his handholds by Ginny’s swinging calves, his damp, blue-eyed head
by her knees. “What are you doing?” he said. “It’s freezing out here.”


    Ginny explained about Deborah, and the Jewish Culture
Club.

    “You can come to my apartment for lunch,” Vincenzo
offered.

    She paused, remembering the ugly squelching of excitement,
and the horrible, horrible moment of the barn door opening. But Vincenzo
had not only his blue eyes and kind, prodding voice but a cafeteria full
of girls, longing for just such an invitation.

    “Sure,” Ginny said. “I’d like to.”


That weekend, Ginny went to New Hampshire with the Aronsons. Josh brought
a friend too, but Mrs. Aronson stayed behind. On Friday night, Rabbi Aronson
handed Ginny the usual stack of bills, then drove them all to the movie
theater to see Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds. Ginny paid
for the tickets, and when they emerged more than three hours later, Rabbi
Aronson summed the movie up: “Jack and Jill go to the revolution,” he
said. The girls, who had loved the movie, laughed too loud.

    “Where’s your mother?” Ginny asked, later that night.
She leaned over the top bunk, looking down at Deborah. The quilts at the
Aronsons’ weekend house were all thick eiderdown, with duvets that matched
the plaid couches in the living room. Ginny pulled hers around her neck
like a cloak.

    “She’s with her boyfriend this weekend,” Deborah said.


    “Her what?”

    Deborah sighed. She rested the back of her hand against
her forehead. In her white flannel nightgown, her curly hair fanning out
around her pillow, she looked pre-Raphaelite and luminous.

    “I know,” Deborah said. “It’s so insane. But my father,
he has all these confused ideas. He knows it’s wrong, but he still thinks
sex is dirty. He loves my mother,” Deborah added. “They’re best friends.
But it’s the religion. My father’s parents were Hasidic, you know, and
he’s just very confused about sex. He can’t help thinking that if it’s
not, you know, to have children, then it defiles her. My mother.”

    “Why do you know all this?” Ginny asked.

    “It’s a very small apartment.”

    Deborah explained that her parents had come to an agreement:
as long as Rabbi Aronson found himself unable to make love to his wife,
she would have boyfriends, and they would try their best not to let it
affect their marriage.

    “That must make you feel weird,” Ginny said. “About
sex.”

    “Oh God,” Deborah said. “I’m just glad I’m still too
young to worry about it. But aren’t Catholics the weirdest about sex?
Or does your family not pay attention to all that?

    “We don’t pay attention to it,” Ginny said, regretting
her equivocation in the face of Deborah’s gushing confidence. She pulled
herself back into bed, a sick kind of lurch in her stomach. Thinking that
if she had religion, murky and hypocritical as it seemed, then maybe she
would have resisted
the two lunches she’d had with Vincenzo last week, on Tuesday and Thursday,
when Deborah was with her Jewish Culture Club friends.

    Vincenzo’s apartment, several floors above Deborah’s,
had the same layout but was not nearly so lavish: a wall of bookshelves
in the living room instead of mirrors, the other wall simply painted white.
A cozy den instead of the music room, with a battered couch and a television
with rabbit ears. In his bedroom, surrounded by the requisite athletic
paraphernalia but also framed posters from theatrical productions, Vinch
told Ginny that he wrote plays. They lay together across his unmade single
bed, Ginny resting her head on his chest while he read one of his compositions
aloud, a one act play about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. When
he put the script aside to kiss her, Ginny said, “I just need to keep
my clothes on.” And Vincenzo complied to this stipulation so stringently
that Ginny felt weak with love, and urgent with frustration any time his
hands gripped garments so clearly in the way.

    Now, lying in the dark, she told this to Deborah.

    “You’re lucky,” Deborah said. “You don’t have all these
rules and ideas in your head. You can do what you want.”

    Ginny knew Deborah meant this as consolation, but to
her the words sounding stripping and accusatory. Long after Deborah fell
asleep — her breathing even, guiltless, and virginal — Ginny
stared at the ceiling, feeling godless and wanton.


“You have the best legs,” Vincenzo said, pulling her skirt up to her thighs,
his fingertips light and loving through her black cotton tights. Ginny
burrowed her face against the warm skin on his neck.

    “I don’t,” she said. “Anyway, who would know.”

    “I know,” Vincenzo said. “I like the way you dress.
It makes this body my secret.”

    Ginny sat up and pulled off her sweater. Her unhooked
bra bunched under her thin t-shirt. She climbed on top of Vinch and pressed
her body hard against his. In these weeks of foodless lunches at Vincenzo’s
apartment, Ginny had lost five pounds. They had yet to see each other
completely naked. Now, she returned her face to its place against his
neck, taking a thin layer of skin gently between her teeth. Beneath her,
she felt a particular kind of writhe through Vincenzo’s body — more
at her mercy than he’d been before.

    It was December, the last day before Winter Break —
what had, at her old school, been called Christmas Vacation. The weekend
before, The Skin of Our Teeth ended its three-night run, and Vincenzo
and Ginny spent the cast party on a couch together, drinking beer and
talking — only indulging in one long, closed-lipped kiss before Ginny’s
father arrived to pick her up.

    Ginny had instructed Vincenzo not to call her during
the break. “But I thought I could visit you,” he objected. “I could come
out and see where you live.”

    Ginny confessed to him the reason she’d changed schools.
She detailed the day in the barn, when everything in her life had changed.
“So what?” Vincenzo said. “I’m sure they don’t want you to never have
a boyfriend, just because of that.”

    Now Vincenzo, in a sudden, jerky movement that seemed
not at all a conscious decision, tugged at the elastic waists of her skirt
and tights. His jeans somehow, suddenly open — the white cotton briefs
which every time Ginny felt under her hands, she imagined his mother buying
for him, in plastic-wrapped packages.

    Ginny eased her own underwear aside. “It’s okay,” she
told Vincenzo.

    “Wait,” he said. He bit his lip, reclaiming his mind
from his body with an athlete’s concentration. He put his hands on either
side of her face, pressing his palms insistently, halting her movement.
“We can’t,” he said. “I don’t have anything.”

    “I don’t care,” Ginny said, surprised at the whine
in her voice.

    Vinch lifted Ginny off his body, then gathered her
back up — pressing her into his side, his arms around her as if comforting
after an injury. “It’s okay,” he said, as Ginny murmured unintelligibly
into his neck. “What did you say?”

    Ginny balled her hand into a fist, and hit him lightly
on the chest. Then she sat up, yanking her tights back up her bare legs,
which had started to get cold. “I said, I wanted you to defile me.”


    They laughed, their bodies shaking against each other,
their clothing pulled back into place.


Downstairs, on the way out of the apartment building — Vinch’s arm
tight across Ginny’s shoulder as if he needed to help her walk —
they passed Lorna in the hall, carrying a load of the Aronsons’ laundry
and letting loose her string of muttered prayers. “That’s Deborah’s maid,”
Ginny told Vinch.

    “Yeah?” he said. “I see her all the time. Pretty crazy.”


    “Yes,” Ginny agreed.

    “You’re sure I can’t call you?” Vincenzo said. Ginny
shook her head. “You’ll call me, then?”

    “Mmm,” Ginny said. “Long distance.” So that for the
next two weeks, at home with her parents, Ginny felt like she would quite
probably die.


The first Saturday of Winter Break, after a heavy snowfall, the new next-door
neighbor appeared on the Corcorans’ front porch. Wearing his yarmulke,
he called up to the window instead of ringing the bell. When Ginny’s father
came to the door, the man asked apologetically if he’d make a phone call
for him — to find out what time an elderly aunt, whom they were concerned
about, had left her apartment building.

    “The rules seem stupid,” Ginny said to her mother,
in the kitchen, after her father had obliged the request, “but at least
they’re following them. They’re not being hypocrites, driving to synagogue
and then parking a block away. They’re not saying sex is evil, and then
having boyfriends on the side.”

    In the backyard, pine and elm trees heaved with snow.
There were occasional loud claps, as white clumps fell from branches and eaves. “Who
says sex is evil and then has a boyfriend on the side?” her mother asked.


    Ginny explained the Aronsons’ arrangement. Although
her mother rolled her eyes — as if she’d heard all this before —
Ginny couldn’t help feeling the information had obliquely hurt her. “A
rabbi’s wife,” her mother murmured, shaking her head in wounded disgust.


    Ginny longed to call Vinch. When her parents got the
phone bill, she could lie about whom the number belonged to. Or she could
just tell the truth. Remember The Skin of Our Teeth, she could
say, and the boy who played the policeman, the one with the funny name?


    But she didn’t. Hating the idea of making such a call
— not expressly forbidden, but distinctly undesired — from her
parents’ home.


New Year’s Eve was Deborah’s sixteenth birthday: the Aronsons invited
Ginny and the two friends from Jewish Culture Club over to celebrate.
Ginny’s father dropped her off in front of the building, waiting until
she was safely inside before driving away. In the elevator, Ginny pressed
the button for Vincenzo’s floor.

    “He went to a New Year’s party,” his mother told Ginny,
fastening pearl earrings. She was tall and blue-eyed like Vinch, wearing
black silk, and clearly annoyed that Ginny had interrupted her preparations.
As if this happened all the time, teenage girls on the doorstep searching
for her son. “Do you want me to tell him you stopped by?”

    “That’s all right,” Ginny said, stepping backward to
retreat. “I was just in the neighborhood. My friend lives downstairs.”


Rabbi Aronson divided a bottle of champagne between six ornate crystal
flutes. Then he, the girls, and Mrs. Aronson stepped down into the music
room while Lorna, grumbling away, prepared a tray of hors d’oeuvres. “To
my
pride and joy,” Rabbi Aronson said, raising his glass. He handed Deborah
a small, wrapped box.

    Deborah wore velvet knickers with white tights and
a high collared lace shirt, her hair tied back loosely with a matching
velvet ribbon. She tore open her parents’ gift, a pair of diamond studs.


    “Oh my God,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.
She started to stand, to hug her father, but Lorna shuffled into the room
and placed the tray on the table, blocking Deborah’s path.

    “And now, Deborah,” Lorna said, bending her elbows
behind her back, “I’m going to sing you a little song.”

    Mrs. Aronson covered her mouth with her hand as Lorna
launched into a quavery rendition of “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep
You.” Everyone sat politely frozen, listening, trying not to catch each
other’s eyes, or look directly at Lorna. And Ginny couldn’t help but notice
Rabbi Aronson’s glance fall, just for a moment, but still meaningfully,
on herself. And while Ginny was aware that the tension in the room sprang
not from offense, but the effort to restrain laughter, she suddenly felt
implicated — tied to crazy Lorna, as the only other supposed gentile.


    As Lorna finished up her hymn and returned to the kitchen,
and everyone still worked on suppressing laughter, Ginny wanted to announce,
“Actually, I’m Jewish. You won’t believe this, but I’m Jewish too.”

    When the four girls went into Deborah’s room, closing
the door behind them — all except Ginny so unaccustomed to alcohol
that they were drunk from their paltry portions of champagne — Ginny
longed to confess. At the same time, she knew: telling Deborah and these
girls about being Jewish, even half-Jewish, would at this point draw the
worst kind of shock and disappointment. That Ginny had not only denied
her Judaism, but performed as a shabbas goy and let Vincenzo undress
her upstairs.


“I’m Jewish,” Ginny told Vinch, a week later. “Half-Jewish.”

    Their first day back at school, lunchtime, and both
of them lay naked across his bed. Vincenzo had just rolled a condom into
place.

    “What?” he said. “What do you mean? So what?”

    “I don’t know,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you.”


    “Listen,” he said, climbing on top of her, the flat,
powdery scent of latex surrounding them. “You want to talk about religion?”


    “No,” Ginny said, bringing up her knees. “No, I don’t.”


As they rode the elevator downstairs, Ginny knew intuitively that Rabbi
Aronson would get on at his floor. Before the number lit, as she crouched
against Vincenzo — his hand at her back, his fingers resting just
inside the waistband of her jeans — she cursed their distracted limp
out of Vinch’s apartment, in the fog of afterglow not thinking to shower
or rearrange themselves.

    When Rabbi Aronson stepped onto the elevator, feigning
jolly surprise as Ginny introduced him to Vincenzo, Ginny felt horribly
aware of the dampness gathered in her underpants, and what she thought
must be the overpowering aroma of blood and semen. But Rabbi Aronson just
hummed to himself, theatrical riffs, smiling at Ginny with a slightly
superior smirk.

    “I don’t think he knew,” Vinch comforted, as they cut
across a snow-crusted lawn, Ginny’s unbuttoned coat flapping as she walked.


    “How could he not?” Ginny said, furiously combing fingers
through her hair. Last spring, when her father had caught her in the barn,
he looked at first so embarrassed, and then so injured. Ginny had known
that the incident was even worse for him than for her, more painful and
fraught with upheaval.

    “Not at all like Rabbi Aronson,” Ginny seethed now,
to Vinch. “He just looked so smug and self-righteous. Didn’t he?”

    “Well,” Vinch said. “He’s not your father. Anyway,
who cares?” He grabbed Ginny’s arm and forced her to stop, holding her
still with both hands and then buttoning up her coat. When he kissed her,
Ginny closed her eyes against the winter chill, her toes tingling with
frost through her shoes, willing herself out of the elevator and into
the outdoors, embraced by Vincenzo, and away from prying adult eyes.


A week later, Vinch had to leave school early for an
away basketball game. Between second and third period, Ginny told Deborah
about having sex and seeing her father in the elevator afterward. “He
didn’t say anything to me,” Deborah said. Today she wore a schoolgirl’s
outfit under her peacoat: a pleated skirt with a Fairisle sweater and
matching turtleneck, her cheeks especially rosy. She invited Ginny over
for lunch that afternoon. “Don’t worry,” she added, “he won’t be there.
My mother left a box of new clothing samples. We can try them on.”

    Riding up in the elevator, Deborah asked Ginny, “Do
you ever worry about hell?”

    “No,” Ginny replied sharply. “Why should I?”

    “I don’t know. I thought Catholics worried about hell.”


    “I don’t,” Ginny said.

    The Aronson apartment was a mess: dishes piled in the
sink, coats thrown on top of chairs, papers scattered across every surface.
“Where’s Lorna?” Ginny asked.

    “Didn’t I tell you?” Deborah said. “Dad fired her.
She caught my mother with her boyfriend one afternoon, then carved ‘Filthy
Jew’ into her bedside table.”

    In the music room, the piano was strewn with wine glasses
and records left out of their jackets. Deborah put on a tape of Josh and
Rabbi Aronson singing. “That’s Josh playing guitar,” Deborah said.

    They sounded wonderful, the rich voices harmonizing
as only blood relatives could. Deborah and Ginny dug through the box of
Mrs. Aronson’s designs as the tape-recorded voices sang “Country Roads”
to Josh’s impassioned strumming.

    The clothes, Ginny thought, were garish and overtly
sexual — tight fabrics and bright, roaring colors. Ginny chose the
plainest garments she could find, a shimmery purple V-neck and a short
red skirt with snaps down the front. As she dressed, she told Deborah
the story about Abraham and Esther — omitting details, like their
names, and Russia, which might give her ancestry away.

    “God,” Deborah said, as Ginny stood in front of the
mirror, her legs longer and leaner still in its ingratiating reflection.
“You look fantastic.”

    Ginny didn’t feel fantastic: she felt naked and ungainly.
Pornographic. She yanked off the skirt abruptly.

    “Careful,” Deborah warned. “Don’t tear it.” She picked
up the discarded red skirt and tried it on herself, as Ginny rolled on
a pair of paisley, skin-tight leggings. On the tape, Rabbi Aronson and
Josh sang “Give Peace a Chance.”

    Strangely, the short skirt went well with Deborah’s
turtleneck and sweater. She did a few turns in front of the mirror, while
Ginny — still seated — stretched out one leg for examination.
The squiggly, spermlike design looked painted on, molding to every muscle
and sinew, so that she felt even more exposed than she had in the skirt.


    “Can you believe that story,” Ginny prodded. “About
being pregnant, and having to clean up vomit? And then not being able
to leave him.”

    “Maybe she loved him,” Deborah suggested. She pulled
a gold-sequined tank top over her head. Through Ginny’s mind, a quick
image of Vinch’s unmade bed, just a few floors up.

    “You look like a hooker,” Ginny said, observing all
the bare, white skin. Deborah frowned. As the song ended, they heard the
front door open. Ginny felt a deep stab of sympathy watching her friend’s
face pale.

    “Shit,” Deborah whispered. She scooped up her sweater
and fled to the music room, hissing, “Stall him. Or her.”

    Him, it turned out. Ginny slipped her arms back into
her own blouse, barely camouflaging the shimmery purple top. She stood
to greet Rabbi Aronson. A stolen, sidelong glimpse in the mirror provided
a ridiculous image: baggy, unbuttoned blouse, and swathed legs that looked
barer than nude. She ignored her own discomfort, and the obvious sounds
of Deborah’s frantic dressing as well as Rabbi Aronson’s attempt at a
conspiratorial smile, his glance at Ginny naturally traveling south.

    Apparently, he didn’t notice the box of rampaged clothes
— not so incriminating, really, blending as they did with the apartment’s
general tumult. “We’ve been listening to your tape,” Ginny told him, trying
to behave as if this was, in fact, the outfit she’d worn to school. “It’s
wonderful.”

    “You’re too kind,” Rabbi Aronson said.

    His voice was so musical, his green eyes so sad and
multi-colored, that for a moment Ginny softened. “No, it’s true,” she
said, granting him the smile he wanted, protecting him from his half-naked
daughter in the next room and allowing him — if he wished —
to conspire with her.

    Deborah emerged, pressing the pleats of her skirt with
her fingers, rosy cheeks further flushed with the embarrassed hurry. Looking,
Ginny thought, like precisely what she was: the picture of innocence,
pure and obedient.

    Rabbi Aronson looked past Ginny, her exposed and supple
legs, her red-handed outfit. Smiling at his daughter, and holding out
his arms to bless and welcome.

  

  

  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: