“You had sex with my sister.”
My stomach drops. My heart pumps into over drive. I can feel the blood drain from my cheeks and a prickly sensation form on the back of my neck. Moisture accumulates on my palms and under my arms. My mouth tightens. I can’t speak. I can’t defend myself. I can’t lie, not here. I look down at my Siddur, the Jewish prayer book, and try to concentrate on the Rabbi’s voice. Why would she call me out like this in front of God? I look up at the ceiling and take a deep, long breath. Have I sinned?
After the service, I stand up and walk out of the aisle in the opposite direction of Phyllis. I can hear her say, “Shana wait…” but I don’t respond. I bite my lip and shake hands with Rabbi and Cantor. I try my best to make eye contact but I just can’t; too many thoughts fly through my mind. I continue waving and smiling at all the adults on the way to the bathroom. Once I’m there, I lock the door and look at myself in the mirror. I watch as the hot tears of betrayal slide down my face. This wasn’t supposed to get out. No one should know about this. A minute later, I hear a knock at the door. I wipe the tears away and hold my breath. “Shana, it’s me. Open up. Look, I shouldn’t have said anything during the service. It was just on my mind. I don’t even know if it’s true or not. Is it true? Open up.”
“No, it’s not true or no, you won’t open up?”
“Fine. I’ll just go ask my sister.” With that, I unlock the door and open it. Phyllis walks in and locks the door behind her. I stare at her no longer trying to mask my hurt or fear. “Well damn, don’t be so upset. My sister isn’t that ugly.”
When she sees how confused I am, she smiles and sits down on the old yellow couch in the bathroom and crosses her legs. “I’ve known about my sister for years. We’re close like that. I must say though I was a little shocked that she chose you. I don’t think it was really fair of her to pick you. I mean not only are you a dear friend of mine but a member of the synagogue, too. That’s scandalous, and I thought this summer would be boring. So wait tell me, what was it like? Is she a good kisser? She probably is. I mean I bet it’s a genetics thing. I’ve been told I’m a pretty good kisser.”
“Stop!” The despair in my voice must have shocked her because she immediately shuts her mouth and looks at me. The tears well up again and my cheeks start to burn. “This is bad Phyllis, really bad. I shouldn’t have done that. If anyone finds out, I’ll be shunned from the community for sure.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I don’t know! I’m so confused right now. I didn’t even know Hannah was a les…into that sort of thing. She just approached me like I gave off a scent or had a giant sign on my head saying ‘I like girls’. I don’t even know if that’s true. Maybe this is just a thing I’m going through.”
“Well you better figure that out and soon. My sister is 22 and single. Her clock is ticking. I heard Ma and Savta talking. They’re thinking about arranged marriage if she doesn’t find someone fast.”
At that moment, a ping of jealousy runs through. I suddenly realize I don’t want Hannah to find someone else. I want to be with Hannah, but I won’t admit this to Phyllis just yet.
“She’s going to come out.” Phyllis continues. “She’s not afraid anymore and she’ll probably throw you right under the bus. I’ll probably get in trouble too for knowing all these years.” I keep my mouth closed, not trusting my own words. “All I’m saying is figure your shit out and fast. Like before dinner.”
“Wait. She’s coming out tonight? On Shabbos? Is she nuts?” Now I’m nervous.
“Yeah, she’s nuts. Whatever, I’m leaving. Esther and I want to go piss off the locals at the beach.” Phyllis unlocks the door and walks out.
I stare at my appearance in my bedroom mirror. I’m not even hungry. All the anxious anticipation pulled my stomachs into knots all day. After Temple, I hid away in my room praying to God that my family won’t shun me.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, part of me dressed for tonight with Hannah in mind. I still want her to be attracted to me. Ever since it happened, I can’t stop thinking about the way her kisses sent butterflies shooting down my entire body. The way she squeezed my hips and ran her fingers down my back all felt so right in that moment and as soon as it ended I knew I’d never feel right again unless I was with her.
I shake my head to break up the memory. These feelings simply don’t exist in the orthodox community. I’ve never met a single person who felt a connection with someone of the same sex. It’s just never talked about. Hannah will be the first I know of and who am I not to be right by her side?
We all stand around the dining room table while my aunt covers her eyes and says the blessings over the candles and then the wine. Hannah stands off to the side with a wine goblet in her hand. She has on a tight navy blue dress, a soft white button down, and gold jewelry. Her dark curls coil up around her shoulders. She looks just like the rest of us but to me, she’s stunning. She holds her chin high but I notice a slight tremble in her hands. She’s actually going through with this. She catches me staring at her. I shy away for a second but then look right back up. Her eyes say a million things to me at once and I understand them all. The knots in my stomach unravel and I suddenly feel lighter. Everything would be all right if we just stick together. She needs me.
The next hour carries on accordingly. We eat, we drink, and we mingle. I keep up small talk with a few of my cousins; I smile and nod when a friend tells me about her fabulous walk on the beach with one of the Naftah brothers but really I’m staring at Hannah the entire time, waiting. Finally, I see her walk up to her mother. This is it. I watch as they walk into the house and disappear.
After what feels like ions of time, Hannah’s mother walks out, her face stone cold. I watch her walk over to my mother. She pulls her away and they go back inside. Without any thought, I follow them but I keep my distance until they enter a room and close it. I stand in front of the door wringing my hands but that only makes them sweatier. I pace back and forth. Suddenly the door swings open. It’s my mother and she practically runs into me. “Is it true?”
I look over at Hannah who has her head down. I don’t know exactly what was said but I’m sure none of it was a lie. “Yes Ima. It’s true.”
My mother explodes into Hebrew hysterics. I attempt to shuffle her back into the room but she pushes me away. “Ima! Ima! Let me explain!” I scream but she throws a hand up to my face and walks away. Hannah’s mother looks directly in my eyes, whispers a few words of disgust in Hebrew and follows my mom.
I peek into the dark room. Hannah’s head no longer hangs down. She is looking straight across the room. I follow her eyes to the Talmud, the Jewish book of law. I sit down beside her and grip one of her hands. Even the touch of her skin against mine settles my heart. I too stare at the book for a moment before I say all the words I know she is thinking. “God created us. He doesn’t make mistakes. We can’t stop how we feel. We’re not the first Orthodox Jews to be gay and we won’t be the last. Maybe it’s time this community let’s go of some of the ancient beliefs. We need to continue moving and changing with the times. The Talmud doesn’t have the answers we want to hear, but none of that matters. I believe in God and I believe in the goodness of your heart. I don’t believe God will erase us from the book of life during Yom Kippur. We shouldn’t have to atone for being true to ourselves. God chose us to make a change and I’m willing to take on that challenge…with you. I want to do this with you. I want to be there holding your hand through whatever our parents do or say to us. I promise to always look into your eyes when no one else will. I promise to be there through all the hell we have to go through on our way to heaven. I promise to lift your chin when anyone makes it hang down. I want to do this all with you because when I look at you my head starts to spin a little but when you touch me all the spinning stops, the whole world stops and everything is right again.”
With tears in her eyes, Hannah reaches over and cups my cheeks in her hands. She looks directly into my eyes and kisses me for a long, long time.