Letter to a Brief Encounter

I think of you at random moments and smile.

I don’t remember his name anymore. I remember you, though — and when I do, my skin flushes and my heartbeat quickens and warmth suffuses me.

I repeated his name to myself over and over when you had gone. We hadn’t exchanged contact information, but maybe I could find him. In this age of social media, that wasn’t impossible.

So I repeated the few facts I knew about him – John, from the outskirts of London, worked in IT but quit his job to travel for the summer and had a new job lined up for the end of August. A free spirit, surviving on savings and friends’ couches until his new job started.

I knew his itinerary, his plans for where he’d go after his day-trip to Eigg. I considered how I could use that information to find him.

And then I stopped.

Because you, dear Brief Encounter, matter more to me than he does.

You, with your wind in my hair and your sprinkle of rain on my face –
you, dear Brief Encounter, matter more to me than he does.

You, with your image of a stranger’s face delighting in the rain
and awed by the soaring land and swirling sea surrounding us –
you, dear Brief Encounter, matter more to me than he does.

You, with your solitary journey-turned-thrill of attraction –
you, dear Brief Encounter, matter more to me than he does.

And I realize, dear Brief Encounter, that his surprise when I hugged him goodbye as we parted ways when the ferry docked – me to spend the next few days on the island, him to hike a bit and catch the evening’s return ferry – I realize his surprise was not only due to his British sensibilities, different from my American sensibilities.

It’s because I was really saying goodbye to you, Brief Encounter. Not to him. I was hugging you, not him. And I think he might have sensed that.

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Notes: I have no photos from the ferry ride to Eigg because my phone had died. My companion on this trip took many photos, and I contemplated asking him to email them to me, but even then I think I knew – the beauty and preciousness of this encounter lay in its ephemeral quality. It was to pass, with no ties to futurity, if it was to retain its significance to me. So above is simply a photo I took on Eigg.

(I changed his info. Those details are close to the truth, but they’re not totally accurate. And I really don’t remember his name.)

#fbf: Purim 1992

L’chvod Shushan Purim, here’s another Purim photo! As with yesterday’s photos, I’m dressed as Queen Esther. My older sister is wearing the dress I would wear two years later (who ever said there can’t be multiple Queen Esthers in one family? No one wanted to be Vashti, after all). My oldest brother is dressed as Achashverosh, the brother next to him as Mordechai, and the baby brother at the time as …. a sailor? I don’t know…

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#tbt: Purim 1994

L’chvod Purim, some photos! Me as Queen Esther, and part of the family with Bobby Hardt: My older sister as a “fancy lady” (her favorite costume for a few years in a row, wearing an old skirt my mother wore to weddings and an old shirt my [other, very regal] grandmother used to wear), one brother as Achashverosh (yes, that is a lightsaber in his hand but we used it as a scepter), one as Mordechai, and one as a clown in a costume my grandmother sewed for him.

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#tbt Cellphones!

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August 2006: I was about to head off to Cleveland for seminary. One friend was going to Israel, the others were staying in Brooklyn and going to Bais Yaakov Seminary. We had one final sleepover before we wouldn’t all be in the same city anymore.

After some debate about the benefits versus risks of a cellphone, I got a cellphone to be able to keep in touch with my parents more easily while boarding in Cleveland. I was the first of my friends to get a cellphone, and I had it less than a week by the time this photo was taken. My friends became fascinated by it and programmed weird names* for themselves. I became amused by the huddle over the device and took this photo 😉


*The names weren’t randomly weird – they used our middle school code names, the names we had used to sign notes that we passed each other in class. One friend had gotten into the habit of signing letters and notes with a simple “me.” So another friend became “you,” I became “us,” and the fourth was “them.”

#tbt: Eye of the Storm

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Chanukah 1996, age 8, at the family Chanukah party in Bobby’s (Bubby’s) apartment.

I love this picture of me, messy hair and nebby headband and all. This dress was a favorite of mine for a while. My grandmother sewed it for me, and it had a little flounce at the waist, with sparkly gold all over and cute little flower pretend-buttons.

Of course I was sitting on the floor in the back room, intently reading a book during the party.

The back room was where the kids went to play games while the adults chatted in the dining room (men) and living room (ladies). I imagine this photo was taken once all the cousins had run to the front for the grab-bag, while I stayed behind to read in the rare quiet.

Or, the cousins were still there in the room making a ruckus, and it didn’t matter to me because I had a book in my lap…


Below: in the midst of a game of some sort at this party. My brother in the foreground, me and my cousin to the right, two of her brothers in the background.

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#tbt: Vorts, Fitting In, and Freedom

A friend had an engagement party recently, and it got me thinking. The vort was in her parents’ home, and pretty much everyone at the event was very frum, visibly so in their dress. There was very little color in the room, even on the women’s side… Another friend and I, in green and red (unplanned, but appropriate for the season?), were almost the only spots of color in a room full of women dressed almost exclusively in blacks and greys.

But that’s not what really struck me about the whole event.

From March 2016 through February 2017, I attended numerous wedding-related events for my three younger brothers’ weddings. Each one was excruciating for me. The main reason, of course, was that I was expected to pretend I wasn’t having panic attacks each time I saw the brother who had molested me as a child. But the other reason was that I was hiding bits of myself each time.

It’s difficult to hide the fact that I’m not frum, what with my short red hair and visible wrist tattoo. But I still had to hide essential parts of myself, as I joined in the joy of a very religious ceremony, a very religious celebration – even though life events are semi-universal, when they’re so steeped in religious meaning, they become less about the happiness of my dear brothers and more about the religion I cannot stand.

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March 2016 – Brother’s vort #1, with sister and cousins. I’m wearing a black dress which covers my knees, a black shell, black tights, and black shoes.

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March 2016, Brother’s vort #2. The dress is in fact above my knees, and I’m wearing sheer nude tights and a burgundy dress because I wanted to feel pretty, and because I knew the brother whose vort it was wouldn’t mind, even if my parents did. I spent much of the time pretending I didn’t see as women glanced down at my knees and then quickly focused on my face again. As I posed for this photo, my aunt looked at me with *that* expression on her face. I ignored her and focused on my sister, who was egging me on to stop being stiff and to “pose like a normal person!”

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October 2016, Brother’s vort #3, with sisters, sisters-in-law, and the chosson (groom). I’m wearing a new dress I bought for the occasion, which was in itself a stressful hassle and laden with anxiety.

And during dinners and lunches, at the weddings and at the aufrufs (pre-wedding weekends, kind of), the conversation would seem perfectly natural and uncontroversial to everyone sitting there, everyone who had been raised in the same environment, while I sat there unable (or unwilling) to voice my intense disagreement with views everyone else took for granted.

While I held my tongue because a simcha is not the time or place to assert my selfhood and potentially make things tense.

While I pretended not to feel horrible when cousins, aunts, people from the “other side” would be fascinated by my life and my career, while they thought they were being nice but I felt like I was being treated like an oddity.

What a difference when the simcha is not my own family’s…

This time, at my friend’s vort, I was obviously respectful of the frum environment. I dressed appropriately and tzniusdig, with black opaque tights and a long-sleeved black shell.

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(As you can see, my sister was right to be exasperated with my inability to pose “like a normal person…”)

But I didn’t have to worry about what people would say when they saw my hair and my tattoo, and how my parents would feel to know that their daughter was being whispered about, and that people were perhaps shaking their heads, “nebach,” on the whole family. People may have been talking about me, I don’t know – but it didn’t matter, because it was a fleeting moment and I was an “outsider,” anyway, not related to the ba’al simcha and therefore not reflecting anything about the simcha.

I also wore a really cute dress I’d had for a while and hadn’t had a chance to wear yet. If this were my own sibling’s vort, I would never have worn it (or would at least have agonized over wearing it and then felt guilty the entire time). I would have been afraid to shame my parents – or at the very least to cause them a pang of pain by “flaunting” my difference and non-conformity. But here – I was tzniusdig. There was nothing overly revealing about the dress – it even covered my knees!

It made me stand out because it didn’t blend in with the other dresses, because it shows individuality. I felt cute, and confident, and – gasp! – sexy. And not once were these good feelings tempered by worry, stress, or anxiety over how my choices are affecting my family, because at this event I was just another guest.

What a difference.

I reflected a bit on my classmates’ vorts from years ago as well. I was super uncomfortable at all of them, because I never felt like I fit in.

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December 2005, high school friend’s vort. We were in twelfth grade. Her family was very chasidish, and after she got engaged, she stopped coming to school.

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Winter 2008, seminary friend’s vort.

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Autumn 2011, childhood friend’s vort, with girls I’d grown up with from pre-school through high school.

I never knew exactly what to wear, I always felt out of place, awkward in conversation with too much loud, boisterous laughter.

At this most recent vort, I’m sure I laughed too loudly a few times, but it didn’t matter.

I wasn’t trying to fit in.

And that is a real and valuable freedom.

 

#tbt: French Class

My high school offered two languages: Russian and French. There was one class in every grade that took Russian, and two that took French. The other classes didn’t take a language. The three language classes were smaller than other class sizes, and we stayed together from tenth to eleventh grade (we didn’t move classrooms for different periods, the teachers came to us), while the other classes got mixed up from year to year. In the language classes, we all formed a fairly close bond after being together for four afternoons a week for two years. To quote Mme Galler, “Assez, that’s enough!”

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In 2012, after I had graduated college but before I started grad school, I taught at my old high school as a substitute for two teachers who went on maternity leave one after the other.

At the end of one day, I passed Mme Galler on the stairs. In the crush of girls streaming out of class, we didn’t have a chance to really talk. I said hi, she said hi, she said something to me in French. I was flustered and it was noisy, resulting in a combination of me not hearing her and not understanding what I did hear.

I shot back (as we passed in opposite streams of bodies) “I don’t really know French anymore!” It was a lie, of course. I had taken an additional three semesters in college and I struggled through French Young Adult novels every now and then for fun.

I don’t know why I said that, really. But I have regretted it ever since, remembering how her face fell in response to my disavowal of speaking French.

Mme Galler was one of the few college-educated teachers in our school. I don’t know why she taught in Bais Yaakov, why she didn’t teach somewhere her efforts would be more appreciated.

But after that brief interaction with her in the halls seven years after I had been in her class, I couldn’t help feeling that I had let her down – that among all the Bais Yaakov students who may or may not actually care about French, she had expected me (and a few others pictured here, probably), who had shown such passion and interest in the language, to remember it years later – and I had flippantly told her I don’t…

So Mme Galler, know this: you were a shining light for me in that abyss where knowledge and intellectual inquiry go to die; your lessons contributed so much to my passion for and understanding of language, grammar, and linguistics; and I most certainly do still speak French.

Playground Highs

When I was eight years old, my brothers and I were playing outside while my parents finished packing up for our summer in the Catskills. We were running and jumping, and at one point my brothers one by one climbed up onto the chest-high (to a child) post near the driveway and jumped off. I followed them – stood high for a moment, laughing with glee, and then jumped.

The back of my skirt caught on the post, and I fell face-down onto the concrete-and-gravel pavement.

My brothers shrieked and my older sister came out to see what was happening. She panicked, thinking I was dying – there was blood all over my face and all over the pavement and all over my clothes.

My mother came out and rushed me inside, where she washed off the blood and found the wound – a small wound at my hairline, right where my hair came to a point in the middle of my forehead.

“Head wounds bleed a lot,” my mother said to calm everyone down, then called the doctor to get me stitched up and moved our summer plans back a few days.

I lost the widow’s-peak hairline and have a scar there instead now.