A short fiction story by Harmony Taggart
I have always been quiet. When I was little I was almost silent. My mother thought I was slow. She brought me to doctors asking them to fix me. She asked for my healing with mi sheberach and prayed I would learn to speak. Doctors told her that I was physically and mentally sound. Prayers were sent up, but no answer returned. When doctors didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, she tried hitting words out of me. She drummed words into my skull with her fists. If I had been loud she would have hit me too. If I had been a boy like she wanted me to be, she would have loved me. I spoke only when saying Sh'ma Yisrael and when my brother asked me to play with him. I remember sitting in the sandbox watching him run his toy trucks over his unbruised legs, the dirt cold and grounding beneath my feet. On Fridays we often played outside in that box until Shabbat chased us back inside. My mom named me Mari-Mariamne, the rebellious one. David, the beloved, the wanted. It would have been easy to resent him, but instead his love kept me strong. He knew what was happening in the vague way that a toddler could understand. He knew we were treated differently. When he was in kindergarten, one of his homework assignments was to draw a picture of his family. I saw him at the kitchen table working on it. He had drawn himself standing in the middle of my mom and I. I was a polka dotted covered stick figure, tan body, brown spots. One of our mom’s arms was three times the length it was supposed to be, stretching across the page to hit me. I told David that he couldn’t give that picture to anyone, because if he did, we would get taken away from mom. I helped him draw another version and explained to him that what our mom did wasn’t what all moms did and he needed to stay quiet.
If it weren’t for him, I would never be home. As it was, I spent most of my time at Olivia’s house. Olivia had hair like rust colored clay at the bottom of a stream. Her house was a mile away, but the streets weren’t busy and my mom wasn’t watchful. We forged bus notes so I could get dropped off at her house after school. We spent evenings and summers underneath a big oak tree in her backyard. She was one of the few people who could get me to speak. I did talk, I wasn’t mute, but I had never thought what I had to say was important. I wasn’t a good story teller. But Olivia listened. She said I was funny when my mom would have hit me.
Her mom was a no-nonsense kind of woman. There were no shoes in her house, and there was no arguing after she’d set a rule. Since the day Olivia got back from her first band practice, her mom made it clear she wasn’t getting a drumset. It was too loud. Olivia was still never without a set of drumsticks in her back pocket. All of her jeans had holes in them from her hammering on her knees, creating intoxicating rhythms. She chose to have bruises. I used to stare at the speeding sticks, jealous that they got to use her as their instrument.
The first time I tried playing I was in 8th grade and Olivia in 10th. She asked me if I wanted to try as she reached out and pulled my long skirt above my knee. She uncovered scabbed knees and a welt on my lower thigh.
“Your mom again?”
I nodded, tucking my leg up to my chest. She nodded and we sat in silence.
“Well you can’t play on that knee. Is the other any better?”
I pulled my skirt up to show her the less bruised leg. She gave me the sticks. They felt foreign and callous. She guided my hands and turned my wrists to a straight, unnatural position.
“Bring this up a bit so you have a hard surface.” She pressed her hand underneath my knee cap so it bent upwards. Her hand was cold in spite of the humid air. Her fingers slid against my sweaty skin. She told me to start by hitting the same spot on my knee, alternating which stick I used. My wrists felt stiff, but after a half hour I had the basic movement.
The beats got passed off between sticks until it sounded like a lopsided train picking up speed. I was thrown off by the accentuation of the first beat in the measure. I had different rhythms programmed into my body. In Hebrew, the pulsing, hypnotic prayers are always accented on the second beat, not the first.
We spent the rest of her time in high school before she went away for college passing sticks back and forth between hands, hers guiding mine, her hands resting on my legs. She rubbed arnica gel on the bruises I got from my mom, and when my legs were too bad to drum on she offered up her own.
On a day in August the summer before she left for college, we were inside her house, my legs and back too sore to sit against a hard tree. We sat on her couch sharing a glass of water, watching condensation drip down the cold surface. She got up to get arnica.
“Where’s the worst spot?”
I turned my back to her and lifted my shirt to show a black and blue spot. My mother had come home in a horrible mood. She was always angry after work, but that day she was especially furious. No matter how mad she was, she made sure to keep the harm covered. My back and abdomen were tattooed with floral bruises. I did my part by wearing long skirts and learning to hide my discomfort when walking.
“Mari, will you please let me help you?”
I turned back to look at her.
“You know I can’t. David isn’t going to grow up in the system.”
“What if she starts hitting him after you lea-”
“Olivia, I can’t do this right now.” I got up pulling my shirt down. Olivia touched my arm and drew me back down.
“Wait. Let me put this on please.” She positioned me to face away from her on the couch, and sit between her legs. She lifted my shirt again and began putting the cool gel on. Her touch was soft. “Are there any more?”
I felt her breath on my neck and dropped my head down. Her fingers wrapped around my waist to touch a bruise she’d found a few weeks before.
“How’s this one doing?”
I flinched and shook my head. She moved her hand off the bruise but kept it under my shirt.
“Sorry, sorry.” She pressed against my stomach. I leaned back into her. Her fingers slipped up farther to just under my chest.
“Are you comfortable with this?” Her breath was heavy. It blew across my ear like a wave. I nodded.
When her mom came home early from work that day she found us in Olivia’s bed. She looked at Olivia and asked her if she’d thought of what my mom was going to say when she told her. Olivia jumped and asked why she would tell her. Her mom looked at me hiding under the covers, then back at Olivia. She said, “because you just slept with a minor and I will not be responsible for your disgusting . . . behavior.” Olivia begged but she wouldn’t budge. I finally spoke up and told Olivia to leave it alone.
My mom didn’t press charges, out of fear of what else the police would find. I’d finally used my voice to tell her that I had wanted to be there with Olivia. That time she hit me to shut me up.
I saw Olivia less during the last few weeks she was in town. There was an unsureness that permeated her confident shell. I’d thought I’d done something wrong. She stopped touching me, even to soothe the bruise that covered half my back. I held my drumsticks incorrectly, trying to get her to fix me. I reached out to tuck her hair behind her ear and she jumped to go inside, saying she had to pee. Every time our hands almost touched, but didn’t, it felt worse than a slap or a punch. I was punished at home, and now she was punishing me, and I didn’t understand. I sent a prayer up, but no answer was returned. I wondered if God was angry at me for being with Olivia.
A week or so after she left, David came home with a black eye. He was sitting in his old sandbox when I walked down the driveway. He told me a 6th grader at school heard that I was a dyke. The boy asked David if it was true, and when he refused to answer, the kid punched him, saying if his sister was a dyke, David had to be a fag.
Soon after, I met Ezra. Ezra the helper. Ezra was Olivia when she was gone. He came to my small house after school, played with David, and was nice to my mom. He said Sh'ma Yisrael twice a day and loved his family. He supported me when I was limping, though back then he couldn’t see what caused my pain. We did homework at the table together, silently. When he kissed me a month after we started dating, his lips were chapped. My bruises became less frequent as he came over more often. Here I was with a nice Jewish boy, the best my mom could have hoped for. As long as I was with him, I was safe.
We slept together our senior year. When he saw my scars we sat in silence.
He asked if I was ok. I nodded. He asked if I was still in the mood. I nodded. There was no rhythm, no beat, no synchrony. We eventually got through the motions and figured out a routine. It worked for us. We started planning a life in New England where we would hold shabbat every Friday. I saw a life without my mom, where she would be happy enough to leave me alone.
Olivia came back the summer before Ezra and I went to college. We were outside in her backyard leaning against our tree. She said there was one on the quad at Smith that reminded her of this one. I sat with my left leg out, my skirt tucked above my knee. She watched my leg intently as I performed for her. I tapped out the rhythms I’d been praying to, my breath quickening under her gaze. After a few moments, she moved to sit and rest her hand on my outstretched leg.
“You’ve improved.” I stopped my stroke just as the stick was about to crack down on her fingers. I stared at her pale skin. I could feel my leg trembling beneath her palm.
“Thanks.” My mouth felt dry and the word stuck to the roof of my mouth like matzo. She turned to me. I gripped my sticks, holding on to the things that used to feel so foreign, but were now the single part of my body that I understood.
I can still remember the force it took for me to raise my eyes to meet hers. The only time since then that I’ve felt so paralyzed was years later, the moment after the bedeken was held. I looked at Ezra through the impenetrable curtain of white fabric, knowing he wasn’t my bashert. If there are more helpless feelings I don’t want to be privy to them. One moment I opened my eyes to a future I couldn’t allow myself to consider, and in another I ensured that I would never be without some form of veil. In one case my body and her hand created a magnetic force. In the other I was floating above myself, wishing I could cut the string from my physical self and be sent to starve outside of Gehenna with Olivia.
Ezra and I moved through our college years without much thought. David stayed in Kansas and enlisted in the Navy. Our mom sent postcards to her friends featuring shining photos of him, listing his accomplishments in bold lettering. At the end of the letter, a line read “Mariamne has moved to NYC with Ezra and works as a journalist.” David still calls me every other week.
When we were twenty-five, we got engaged and moved to become New York City Jews. He veiled and married me two years later. He loved New York because of the synagogues, I loved it because of the women. In the small unassuming bars, I found Jen, Alice, Katherine--you name her. I turned away from my prayers and found a new rhythm; a beat that knocked against bathroom stalls when Ezra was working late and slapped my ass when I opened the door to the bar. These women didn’t have eyes that I couldn’t bear to look into, and they weren’t interested in talking. Ezra never noticed. We were there for each other, but not with each other. We slept next to one another and found comfort in our routine. He wanted to work more closely with our synagogue, helping with philanthropy projects and I wanted to explore New York. Neither of us wanted to live without the other.
We were twenty-nine when he gave me Tal and I stopped seeing the other women. When she was born I promised her she would grow up feeling safe to be just who she is. A year later, he came home to me crying in bed. He sat down and I finally spoke to him. After I’d broken his life apart, he helped me put mine back together. We looked for apartments and signed divorce papers. Ezra, the helper.
Recently I’ve been thinking about Olivia. I took Tal to the beach the other day and we hiked the sand dunes. At the bottom of a small tide pool were clumps of red clay.
Tal immediately jumped in the shallow water and scooped up mounds of the stuff, coating her clothing in an orange-red slime. When I sat with Tal after her bath, she asked me if I thought her dad had been my bashert. I told her what I always did, that you never know who your bashert is. She asked me to guess. I said if I had to I would say he was the closest I would get. She asked why.
“Because God gave me you instead of a bashert, my beautiful girl. You’re all I need.”
“Is that why you and dad aren’t together?”
“Dad and I aren’t together because if I ever found a bashert, they wouldn’t be a man.”
While I drove back from dropping Tal off at Ezra’s that night, I broke the promise I made to myself and went online to look at Olivia’s profile. It didn’t take long to find a picture of her smiling next to a blonde woman. I scrolled back years before her to the brunette and then before her to when Olivia was by herself. She stood in front of a poster for a small band she had been in a decade or so ago. She had drumsticks in her back pocket. I’d listened to some of their music and had once thought about going to a show they had close by, but of course I didn’t. Her page said she was still in the city.
I got up and looked around my bedroom for the drumsticks I’d held on to. One of them has a splinter down the center. I felt her hands wrap around mine as I straightened out my wrists.
V'hayu had'varim ha'eileh asher anokhi m'tzav'kha hayom al l'vavekha.
V'shinan'tam l'vanekha v'dibar'ta bam
Uk'shar'tam l'ot al yadekha v'hayu l'totafot bein einekha.
Ukh'tav'tam al m'zuzot beitekha uvish'arekha.
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them
when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up
And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
I wrote Olivia a short note, really a sentence, and sent it along with the broken drumstick to the address listed on her profile. I don’t expect a reply.
I think you are my bashert.