Mention Energheia Israel Prize 2019
*The starred words are translated in the glossary at the end of the story
It’s not even my fault. I blame her. She asked for it.
Our first date and she wore a tight black skirt with a slit up the back. She thought I wouldn’t notice…or worse, she hoped I would. The whole date I had my eyes over her shoulder, self-conscious that the whole lobby was watching, she spoke loudly and used wild hand gestures. When I told her the story about the fake mouse we planted in our Rebbe’s drawer in middle school, she shrieked in laughter and I turned red.
Rachel was a one-date type of girl, the type I’d say no to, and she’d be fine with it… because she’d say no back.
The thing is, I didn’t. Something about her, the way she smiled easily and uncalculated, was more genuine than any other girl I’d gone out with yet. And surprise, surprise, she said yes to going out with me too.
Our second date was more intimate, a nice café in Mamilla*. We got food this time. I ordered a light salad and she shamelessly chose the salmon and a side of string beans. She beamed when it came and she beamed at me, her smile was worth coming out here for.
When the waiter cleared our plates, she suggested we get dessert. My father gave me a hundred shekel for the date and that barely covered her dinner alone but I nodded anyways.
“I’m fine,” I said, “you get whatever you want.”
She ordered the Belgian waffle with ice cream on top.
“Are you having a nice time?” she said, “I know I’m not supposed to ask, but I’m curious.” She leaned over and flashed one of her careless smiles.
My heart beat fast. I’d never been confronted like this before. She’d hear it from the shadchan tomorrow or the day after, why was she asking me now? It was also endearing, how straight up she was, like I said: unashamed.
“Yeah, this is really,” I cleared my throat, “…nice. Really nice.”
Did this mean I’d have to go out with her again? Did I want to go out with her again? She looked at me with wide eyes and it was hard not to notice her beauty. Her smooth skin and thick…ahem…lips.
I averted my eyes so she wouldn’t catch me staring, so I wouldn’t catch myself staring.
She said yes, she wanted to go out with me again. Between the second and third date I couldn’t think of anything else but her. I closed my eyes during Shmoneh Esrei* and her face popped up, clear as reality—thick hair, now I could appreciate how thick and shiny it was, her eyelids heavy and always sparkly. Her lips—
How did she do it? How did she keep her lips pink? When my mother drank Kiddush wine on Friday night her lipstick stained the cup. It was completely wiped out by the time we were done with the first course. Rachel’s lasted the whole evening, imprinted itself on my memory. Her laugh—that irksome, exaggerated laugh—rang in my head. It even made me smile.
I said yes for the wrong reasons I realized. I said yes because I was attracted to her physical appearance. I said yes because I wanted to see her, because I wanted…her.
Why did she say yes to me?
It was her fault more than anything but I’ll also take some blame. The third date I borrowed my parent’s car to pick her up. A bad idea, the worst idea. It wasn’t acceptable and I knew why—the exact reason I chose to use it.
I picked her up and it was okay. We drove around and it was okay, still okay.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked.
“Whatever you want,” she said.
So we drove in circles around the neighborhood because that was all I wanted—to be alone with her. A hundred voices went against me in my head, my parents—they were appalled, Rabbi Shalom—he shook his head in dismay, even Shlomo, my chavruta* who I knew went off the derech* when he was a teen even if he never spoke about it.
Mostly I heard Your voice. You looked down at me and said, “My boy, is this really want you want? You know I only give you tests you can overcome.”
I caught Rachel’s eyes in the rearview mirror, she grinned on automatic, teeth white and shining, lips that candy pink, and I knew, this test I could not overcome.
This is why I don’t go out with modern girls, they wear their long hair down and their skirts so short they ride up when they sit. Did she realize it hit mid-thigh? Her knees glistened in sheer pantyhose.
Eventually I parked the car in an underground lot near a shopping mall.
She moved to open her door but I leaned back in my seat, “we could stay here for a bit,” I said, “If you’d like?”
“Sure.” she said and leaned on her own seat, brushing her hair to one side.
This was what they spoke about when they said ‘Yetzer Hara*’, this was the feeling: her perfume thick in the air, her eyelids so heavy they’d drop in a minute, drop her into a dream and with (good?) luck I’d be in that dream with her. Somehow her neckline dipped too, showed off her defined collar bones and even below. At first I averted my eyes, but then I looked at the trail of skin and the shadows formed. And then I stared. Rachel smiled knowingly, she smiled the whole time.
She even smiled when she sat up and said, “Actually, I think we should go to the mall. It’s gonna close soon.”
I laughed and said no. I told her we should stay, I told her we’d go later, another time, you’re having a nice time, aren’t you Rachel?
She cleared her throat like I did and laughed, “of course.”
Oh, why did You give me a test I was destined to fail? Why did You send Rachel my way?
It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair that her skin looked smoother than any skin I’ve seen, that her nails were filed and baby pink and perfect. That she was the manifestation of feelings I’d read about, feeling that I wasn’t supposed to have, that I was supposed to keep for my wife. This woman wasn’t my wife, wouldn’t be my wife. She was nice to look at and surprising and refreshing, but she wouldn’t make a good wife. Even though she shut her eyes and hummed a tune I didn’t know and I felt fire and I didn’t know what to do with it. She wouldn’t be my wife so I didn’t need that fire.
What could I have done?
Is there anything more to say?
Was it my fault? I definitely let it happen. She opened her eyes and said I shouldn’t, she backed away and said she didn’t want me to. But her clothing, her attitude told an entirely different story, I didn’t know what to believe.
Do You blame me? Did I fail Your test? Did You know I would?
My heart is heavy and I can’t sleep. All I think about is her, how I ruined her, how I ruined myself. How in one moment a world can be destroyed.
You knew I would fail yet You tested me anyways.
Rachel told the shadchan, he was appalled, said he won’t set me up again, even called my mother. My mother was appalled as well.
“Oy vey, no one will want to marry you if they hear.”
I wonder if I’m even deserving of the wife I envision for myself. Certainly not anymore. Not even a girl like Rachel would take me at this point.
I know that everything is for the best and I should take this as a lesson to grow from but somehow I can’t. I only see it as my downfall, my recognition of women as the taiva* that they are, how they can hypnotize you in a moment and make you lose control.
Lose control for one moment and you’re ruined for life—ruined her life.
I’ve asked her for forgiveness, even though she’s partly to blame.
I’m asking You for forgiveness too, even though you set me up for failure.
Such close proximity, I really didn’t mean it. I really didn’t mean to reach across the gears and for a moment, just that moment, hold her hand.
Shmoneh Esrei: the silent, standing prayer
Shidduch: an orthodox Jewish method of matchmaking where singles are introduced to each other for the purpose of marriage
Mamilla: upscale pedestrian mall in Jerusalem
Chavruta: learning partner
Off the derech: (expression) left the Orthodox community
Yezer Hara: evil inclination