I had this shiner on my eye the day of the purim party. Took a soccer ball to the face the Sunday prior. I’d tried to cover it with white face paint so I could reprise my “deadutante” (get it?) costume from Halloween, float through the cold March night in white gloves and low-cut lace. Thing is, Lawrence and I were having problems—if we were going to split, I wanted him to remember me perfect. I ran out to the dollar store and bought a cheap black mask in the nick of time. Silver glitter coated its edges. Behind it, I felt invisible, powerful, like nothing Lawrence did could hurt me anymore.
He showed up at my door in hockey pads and a goalie mask, because he has absolutely zero imagination. “You shaved,” I said, and pecked his wide mouth, remembering how raw my chin used to get from rubbing against his stubbly one when we first got together.
“I’m surprised at you, Gab,” he said. “Same costume as Halloween?” I felt truly judged. Somehow we always managed to piss each other off for the same reason: if I complained he was moody he said I was worse, and we fought like angry goldfish circling in the same bowl.
“At least it’s creative.” I’d suggested wearing sexy costumes to him once. “I could be a nurse,” I’d said, “or a naughty teacher,” but it was like trying to get an erection out of a chew toy.
We walked in silence until we were almost at Bloor, near the secondhand bookshop where an old man once read Persian love poems to me and my friend Rochelle—one for each of us—when Lawrence told me that something bad had happened to his sister. “Melody’s back in the hospital.”
“Fuck,” I said. “Since when?”
He turned to face me and I reached up to snap the top of his coat closed.
“She stopped talking again. She just paces. She lies down on the floor and then stands up and keeps pacing.” Lawrence’s sister was like a car crash: you felt fascination, and a kind of pity, but mostly you were just curious to see when the mangled person would emerge from the wreck. She’d been traumatized when some guy jumped off the Bloor viaduct in front of her a long time ago. He survived and went on to do who knew what (maybe terrorize other helpless girls), but Melody still lived at home, and instead of working or going to school she volunteered at the public library twice a week. Years of using anti-psychotics had bloated her bigger than anyone, ever. Lawrence thought it was this guy’s jump that had ripped her life from its hinges. I had my doubts.
“They want to try shock therapy,” he said.
“Isn’t that, like, medieval?”
“It’s supposed to help.” Lawrence folded his hands into his back jean pockets and squared his broad chest against the wind. He was protective of Melody. Mostly I just wanted to tell the poor girl to snap the fuck out of it. “Amy said it saved her brother’s life.”
“You told Amy about this before telling me.”
“Christ,” Lawrence said, “she knows about this stuff.”
“Do us both a favour.” I started walking faster and had to shout over my shoulder so he’d hear me above the wind. “Just sleep with her already. Oh wait, you can’t, can you?”
I slipped on a patch of ice and skidded to one knee. Lawrence grabbed my hand, gloved in white satin. “Be careful, Gabby,” he said, then let go. We walked in silence until we reached Spadina station.
Amy was sitting on a bench in the station, knitting some green thing. She wasn’t even in costume, just wearing a long, flouncy skirt under her parka and one of those sheepskin toques with ear flaps. She hugged me as though we were engaged in a deeply meaningful transaction and kissed Lawrence on both cheeks. The Purim party was her idea. Personally, the thought of going to synagogue—for fun—weirded me out.
We started walking and Lawrence pulled a flask from his coat pocket. They say that on Purim you’re supposed to get so wrecked you can’t tell “curse Haman”—would-be murderer of the Jews—from “bless Mordechai,” our saviour. Getting trashed was something I could totally do for my people.
I felt bad for shouting at Lawrence. Thing is, we didn’t sleep together for a while at first. He has problems in that area unless he’s comfortable with the girl, and even then, to be perfectly honest, he sometimes still has problems. He’s a good guy though, totally different from most of the others I’ve been with, so for my part, I told him about getting fondled by a camp counsellor when I was nine and the teacher who used to come up behind me in the hallway to rub my neck. How shit like that doesn’t happen to other girls the way it always happens to me, and anyway, I haven’t been single for more than a few months since I was thirteen. Lawrence was supposed to be proof that I could change things around. He said he was happy I was waiting for him, and I said, “We’re waiting for each other,” and believed that meant it was love.
We turned off Spadina at the cheap pizza place where the walls are covered with photos of happy customers. (I would never eat there; it’s failed food safety inspections so many times.) Lawrence and Amy were yammering about the newish building on the corner with the sign for the University of Toronto that sticks out over half the street. He thought the architecture was terrible but she said it was a statement about public versus private space. Lawrence’s flask kept me company and I wondered how long they’d ignore me. He has this way of pretending I don’t have feelings. I act tough, so what?
The three of us met in Israel on a Birthright trip, the December before last. Ten days of touring the country for free on a bus packed with young Jews. I noticed Lawrence the first night, at the kibbutz in the Galilee. All day, the sun had boiled over the green mountains, but the evening air was dry and crisp. Everyone clumped on the kibbutz’s stony beach, flirting and drinking duty-free rum. “I’m home, bitches!” someone had shouted when we landed in Israel. Another guy had repeated, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” until someone told him to shut up. We’d studied this place, imagined it for so long, and now we were exactly where we’d always wanted to be.
During a game of Spin the Bottle that first night, Lawrence leaned over and kissed Amy for longer than seemed necessary. His hand was on her cheek. Her hand clamped the base of his skull. Finally, though, Amy disappeared and the two of us were left talking after everyone else had trickled off to bed. He threw pebbles into the black lake and told me about angling with his dad when he was a kid—about the only time he ever saw the guy—up near Thunder Bay. Lawrence was maybe the only boy from Thornhill who knew how to skin and gut a fish, and cook it over an open flame. One time, he even caught a muskie, the ugliest fish he ever saw, but he released it. He told me how it had turned from a crazed, thrashing thing to a smooth shadow gliding below the surface of the lake.
So it was my hand, not Amy’s, that Lawrence laced his fingers through as the sky turned light. He said he normally didn’t talk so much to anyone; he liked talking to me. I didn’t know how it would all play out, once the darkness lifted, but he sat beside me on the bus that day, and the next, and we planted our saplings side-by-side on a hilltop in the Galilee. We were in a cave, sifting the dirt for fragments of archaeological interest when the guide said, “Welcome home. Thank you for coming home.” He was a hippie, his long hair pulled back from his face by a red bandana. I looked at Lawrence and thought, One day, maybe I’ll come home to you.
We arrived at the shul late and entered just as the reader spoke the name Haman. The congregation shouted and stamped its feet and twirled noisemakers to drown out the sound of his name. It had been years since I’d been inside a synagogue. One time when I was little, I went to shul for Simchat Torah and spent the night dancing in circles with the other women and girls. I was breathless, dazed from happiness, but when my mom picked me up I told her I’d hated it. I don’t even know why.
Amy’s shul was full of twentysomething zombies and cowgirls with a few toddlers taking staccato steps down the aisles. The reader waited for the revelry to die down before continuing. She wore a fake witch’s nose with a wart on it and glasses that were too big for her narrow face. After the reading, we all gathered in the shul’s basement for hamantaschens and whisky. A guitarist and clarinet player kept everyone entertained. Most of the guys there were your typical nebbishy Jews, achingly single, and I was proud to be with Lawrence, cause he’s stacked. Amy was off talking to some people she knew there. I took another long swig from Lawrence’s flask and pulled him into the centre of the room.
One thing I really wanted to do in Israel was hook up with a soldier. Five of them came on the bus with us, in olive-green uniforms and Ray-bans, muscled and deeply tanned, Jewish boys like the rest but oh my God—what specimens—and the confidence to ask flat out if you wanted to fuck. By the end of the trip, half the girls on my bus had given a soldier a blow job, and the ones who didn’t had sticks up their butts or were fat. All this hooking up was sort of okay because everyone was Jewish. At the back of the bus, the girls giggled about Ilan and Yaakov. I acted like the sex I was supposedly having with Lawrence was much too meaningful to discuss.
Amy was standing at the front of the room, her arm linked through the arm of a clown, both of them singing “Stand by Me.” The guy beside me, wearing an orange and black rocker wig and a mask similar to mine, put his arm around my shoulder, and I put my arm around Lawrence’s shoulder, and the three of us swayed together. The song ended and Lawrence went to refill his flask. “I’m Gabby,” I tried to say to the masked guy, but he interrupted me.
“Don’t you think it’s more fun,” he said, “not knowing?” He tilted his head to the side as he spoke, smiling crookedly, as though life were a big adventure and he was inviting you to conspire in it with him.
I looked around; Lawrence was sitting on the floor beside the hamantaschen table, his head bent towards Amy’s.
“Want to dance?” I asked.
The song ended and I went back to Lawrence.
“I turn around for five seconds,” he said as I sat down, “and your crotch is rubbing against someone else.” Amy scrambled up and left.
“That’s not true!”
“Did you have to dance with him like that?”
“What about you and Amy?” I was getting to the stage of drunkenness where the room felt like a ship— Lawrence’s face was heaving over waves.
“Nothing has ever happened between me and Amy. I even crashed at her place on Friday and she made me sleep on top of the sheets.”
“You and Amy slept in the same bed.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
When I got up she was in front of me, wobbling, and her hair was in my fist. We fell into the hamantaschen table. Juice and whisky soaked my dress. People started yelling and grabbing at me but I shook them off and ran for the back door without my coat. I sat on the back steps of the synagogue, shivering and crying.
It didn’t matter. He could barely even fuck. Though I don’t know. Maybe it was my fault as much as his. Maybe he wasn’t even attracted to me, and he was just the first guy to uncover some massive flaw I’ve always feared was there.
The door opened behind me. I moved off the icy step.
“No, don’t worry.” It was the masked guy, holding his coat out to me.
“Thanks,” I said, sliding in my arms and zipping it to my chin. The cold air had cleared my head a bit. “If you won’t tell me your name, will you tell me what you do?”
“I go to U of T. But I’m graduating in a few months.”
“What comes next?”
“Is that your boyfriend in there?”
“I’m not sure anymore.” Saying it made me think of butterflies, crucified with pins and displayed, their flat hearts still beating. I probably did love Lawrence, after all.
“Uh oh. How long have you been with him?”
“We met on Birthright, like, fifteen months ago.”
“I did Birthright.” He was definitely flirting with me. Or else he was gay; it was hard to tell. “Isn’t it crazy how they make no mention of the Palestinians?”
“I don’t care,” I said, rubbing my hands together and blowing hot breath through both thinly gloved fists. “I hate politics.”
“Shame,” he said, “you’re cold. Would you like to take a walk?” No one else was around, so I let him help me up off the step.
I really loved Birthright. In the desert, at the Bedouin tents, Lawrence and I stayed awake the whole night, talking beside the fire. The madrichim started waking everyone up a couple hours before dawn. Even though we hadn’t slept, Lawrence and I were fitter than most of the other kids and we were the first to reach Masada, the hilltop fortress where a group of Jews resisted the Romans after the second Temple was destroyed. When Masada finally fell, the Jews committed mass suicide rather than give up. Who’s to say what makes one race of people, or even a single person, tougher than another? Lawrence told me that his sister was fearless as a kid. She’d do anything on a dare: swallow a live earthworm from the backyard, show her underwear to the boys across the street. He’d asked her once what she thought about during her breakdowns. And she said that she didn’t think, she simply responded to triggers, like a drunk, like someone in shock, as memories flopped alive inside her like a fish in a boat. Lawrence always said he’d like to find the guy who did this to her and pound the shit out of him. “What’s the worst thing,” I suddenly asked the masked guy, “that’s ever happened to you?”
“Whoa,” he said, “what kind of small talk is that?” Maybe it was the whisky, or the identical masks we wore, or his possibly-gay charm, but I felt I could ask him anything I liked. I even told him that. Silently, he turned around. When he lifted his shirt, I saw all the scars etched into his back. Old ones, but deep. “What happened to you?” I asked.
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
“You can tell me,” I said.
“I hurt myself because I could. Does that make any sense? I wanted to throw myself against every limit at once.”
I couldn’t answer him honestly. I couldn’t tell him how one night, on our trip, when Lawrence thought I wasn’t feeling well, I got with one of the soldiers. I just lay there, hating myself, until he finished. I think I told him to stop once or twice and he must have heard me, but I was into it at first, and it’s not really rape if you could have tried to get away. “I play soccer,” I said, “and sometimes I push my body past what it can take.” I knew this wasn’t what the masked guy meant. “I push it so that I can be the best.”
“It was almost like trying to be the worst,” he said. “I wanted to let people know how lost I was.”
Our Birthright bus got lost on the way to Jerusalem. There was a sandstorm and we had to pull over until it subsided. Some of the girls were afraid (we were pretty close to the West Bank), but our tour guide reminded them that both our guard and our medic were armed. The bus swayed back and forth in the yellow wind. It seemed to me we just needed to wait out the lostness, even if it lasted for a very long time.
I reached out and put my hand on the guy’s cheek, sliding my fingers up underneath his mask. “Will you take this off,” I said, “please?”
“No way,” he said. “Why not?”
“I always wear it.” Even though he was talking shit he was cute as hell. “Showing you my face could kill me. That’s just common sense.”
“It sounds more like magic.”
“Well, I believe in magic. Magic saved my life.”
In Israel, I walked the same land my ancestors walked, and that felt like magic: a symbol for sloughing off the Jews’ recent terrible past in favour of an older one. Or not sloughing it off so much as trying to outrun it, though we’ve never gotten very far away from it at all. Holidays like Purim remind us that we’ve always been victims. After Masada, we went to the Dead Sea, where, like all the tourists, we posed for pictures on the slim strip of beach and bobbed like corks in the bright water. Lawrence and I had no history yet, we were weightless. But I slept with the soldier that night.
“I’ll make you a bet,” I said. “I’ll race you to the end of the street. If I win, you lose the mask and the wig and tell me your name.”
“And if I win?”
“Name your price.”
“A kiss. Oh, and I get to feel you up.” “Under the bra or over?”
“I was joking.” “Yeah. So was I.”
I hiked up my tight skirt so it was only just covering my butt while the masked guy made a big show of stretching.
“On your marks,” I said. “Get set.”
We ran. The guy got winded fast and I tore out ahead of him. My lungs sucked the cold air, surging against my ribs, alive to the thrill of the race. I could hear the blood beat in my ears and still I pushed myself until I thought my heart would pop. I collapsed, panting, at the end of the street, with the guy right behind me. He sounded like he was having an asthmatic fit.
He grabbed me in his arms. He took off my mask and his and I saw his freckles in the streetlight and that his hair beneath the wig was curly and black. I won the race. I could have pulled away, gone back to the boy I loved, or could have loved, maybe, if I’d let myself. But people don’t change. Our mistakes and secrets just turn to seeds inside us and grow into green jungles, impenetrable to light and air.
“I’m Jordan Loewenstern,” he said, between kisses. The name sounded familiar. Melody. His scars. It was Lawrence’s mortal enemy.
But that didn’t matter: Lawrence was history now. Jordan touched the bruise around my eye. “Did he do this to you?”
I looked at the ground, as though I couldn’t bring myself to admit it.
“I’d never do this to you, you know that?” Jordan said. “I couldn’t hurt a fly.”
I looked up at him and smiled, fluttering my eyes like there was sand in them. “Sure,” I said. “I know that.”