Authors: Julia Dahl
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Women Sleuths
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Florida was not as I imagined. There was no ocean where your father lived, that was the first thing. This had not occurred to me; in Florida but no beach for fifty miles? Brian pointed out the swimming pools, and yes, they seemed to be everywhere. It’s so much better than the beach, he said. The water is clean and you don’t get sand all over. Your father was very good at a sport called water polo, which was why he looked the way he did. Wide, smooth chest, strong shoulders, bronzed skin, and blond-tipped hair. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. All he did was smile. I had never seen a man’s body until the afternoon your father took his shirt off and we jumped into the fountain in Washington Square Park. The men and boys in Borough Park were always covered in black clothing. They were skinny or fat and had bad posture, arms too long for their bodies. Untrimmed fingernails, bony wrists, and stiff little hairs growing out of their faces. They were always so serious—at least around me—and they seemed so frightened of the world outside Brooklyn.
Your father was not frightened of the world. Brian came to New York City to participate in a summer exchange program at NYU. He was taking a class called The Bible as Literature, and as part of the program he worked at a YMCA in the Village. He taught swimming and was horrified when he learned I couldn’t swim. You have to learn! he said, as serious as I had ever seen him. But I avoided it. I tried to explain, when he told me the pool was better than the ocean, that going to the ocean wasn’t about going in the water, it was about witnessing the water. The waves that never stop coming. The wind and the sand and the salt in the air that leaves your skin stiff and your hair in knots. I loved the long showers I took after going to the beach. I loved that I had to wash it off. But the first time I took your father to Coney Island, he remarked about the garbage. What could I say? He did not see it as I did. He wanted to. He said, Aviva, tell me what it means to you. But how could I? There were no words I could think of to make him see.
To get to Florida, we took the bus from Port Authority. Brian bought me a duffel bag at the NYU student store, but I brought almost nothing with me. Just some cheap new clothes that showed my body, and a photograph of me and your namesake, my sister Rivka, the summer before she died. The ride south was thirty-two hours of sticky floors and sneezing strangers and body odor and anticipation. At a truck stop in Virginia there was food on a conveyor belt. Heaping meals of greasy brown and yellow and white that glowed beneath heat lamps. In North Carolina we put quarters into televisions attached to hard plastic chairs and watched a game show while we waited for a transfer. There was vomit in the sink of the rest stop in Georgia. Bloody menstrual pads overflowing the courtesy bins in the bathroom stalls. Door latches broken, coffee burnt, half-dressed women, dead-eyed men, inconsolable children, and everywhere fluorescent bulbs blinking and buzzing overhead. It was all ugliness and sorrow—exactly as I’d been warned the goyish world would be. I touched as little as I could manage and ate almost nothing.
On the way, Brian and I talked about what I would “do” in Florida. You can totally find a job, he said. At the mall. Or TCBY—whatever that was. I nodded because I didn’t care. I just wanted out of Brooklyn. And your father, well, he wanted me.
It was raining when we finally arrived in Orlando. Your father’s roommate, I don’t remember his name, picked us up at the bus station and brought us to Brian’s room at the university. We climbed together onto the top bunk of his bed and slept for almost an entire day.
Your father was wonderful, of course. Supportive and loving even as it all fell apart. He used to say I deserved a little rebellion—a little bad behavior. He said it was good for me after almost twenty years with no choices. You have to learn what you like, he said. You have to learn what makes you happy. Rum and Coke made me happy. My bare legs exposed to the world made me happy. Rock music turned up loud so I could sing along and not even hear my voice made me happy. Eyeliner made me happy. And red nail polish. And smoking pot. I called it “doing pot” then, which made your father laugh. Let’s do some pot, Brian, I’d say. Let’s do some pot and fuck. “Fuck” was a word I learned from a girl at the Coney Island house who’d fled a
and had a job selling sex toys at a store on West Fourth Street in Manhattan. She was the one who told me to go to the Strand and buy a book called
Our Bodies, Ourselves
to learn all the things about my body that I didn’t know—and there was a lot. Your father didn’t like it when I said fuck. He said making love. But that didn’t sound right to me. Frum girls learn about sex in secret. In shards of stories that don’t fit together into anything that involves love. We’re not supposed to know about sex until we get engaged, and then they send us to a class before the wedding where an old woman tells us how to make a baby.
Brian and I lived in his dorm room. No one could tell by looking that I wasn’t a student, and it was the beginning of the school year so people seemed to expect new faces. While he went to classes, I slept late and walked around the campus. Some frum girls go to college, but they live at home until they marry. Even in July, we wear long sleeves and stockings. Everything from our neck to our toes is covered all the time. The boys call it body armor. But the girls in Florida wore bikini tops to class. They drove little cars with figurines and photographs and beads hanging from the rearview mirrors. They drove with ease. Careless, with bare feet, applying lip gloss at stoplights. Their arms out the window, fingers flicking cigarettes, hands tapping the side of the car to the beat of the music that was always playing. That’s Madonna, your father would tell me. Or the Eagles. Or Bon Jovi. The names meant nothing to me, but the music, and everything else about the girls, made me want to jump in their windows—made me want to jump in their skin. I studied how they dressed and did my best to imitate it. I loved the feeling of the sun on my arms. The sensation of breeze between my legs beneath a short skirt. I wore very little. Why not? And the
. Tan and smiling all the time. Tall, with smooth shaved faces, bare necks, and hairstyles nearly as diverse as the girls: bleached blond spikes and wild black waves, bangs falling in their eyes so they had to brush them aside with a jerk of the head. Their hair told me a story about who they were. If you were lucky enough to live in a world where you could use your body as an expression of yourself, wouldn’t you? I had the idea that I could tell what they were like inside by the way they appeared: that one must be goofy, that one timid, that one angry. They noticed me when I walked alone, and after just a few days I stopped looking away when they stared. I imagined that because so many of them looked athletic and cheerful like Brian that they were like Brian. I was wrong.
At the end of September, a boy started talking to me while I was drinking a Coke outside the gym. Girls played tennis there, and I liked to watch them. In Borough Park, girls are taught that physical maturity is a provocation. As we grow, we grow ashamed of our bodies. We dislike the parts of ourselves that make us different from the boys. We hide those parts as best we can. Not these girls. They were so confident, so wild and at ease inside their bodies—throwing themselves after the ball, slapping each other’s hands, shrieking and laughing, always laughing.
“Do you play?” asked the boy. He was wearing a tank top and holding the strap of his backpack so I could see the wisps of light brown hair peeking from beneath his armpit.
“Me?” I asked. I shook my head.
“I’m Chris,” he said.
“I’m Aviva,” I said.
“Aviva,” he said. “That’s pretty.” He had perfect white teeth and blond hair that was longer in the front than in the back. He almost glowed in the sunlight. “Is this your first year?”
“I’m a junior,” he said, sitting down on the bench next to me. “It’s a pretty cool place. What hall do you live in?”
I didn’t remember the name. In fact, I hadn’t been entirely clear there was an official name for the building where your father had a room. So I told the truth.
“I do not go to school here. I am just staying for a while with my boyfriend.”
“Your boyfriend,” he said, drawing out the word. “And where is he now?”
“In class,” I said.
“He just leaves you alone all day?” He leaned toward me and I caught a faint whiff of his sweat. But it didn’t make me want to lean back—it made me want to lean closer. “If I were your boyfriend I wouldn’t leave you alone for other guys to come hit on.”
“If you were my boyfriend?” I said, dumbly. He was so forward. I remember I was shocked, although I hated myself for it. It was very important to me that other people saw me as brave. I’d escaped Brooklyn, hadn’t I? But bravery is no substitute for experience, and at that point I could count on two hands the conversations I’d had with boys I wasn’t related to. Your father and I started talking because we were both in the religion aisle of the bookstore. We had probably been standing within five feet of each other for half an hour before he said hello. Navigating a conversation with a boy like this, a boy who was flirting with me for no other reason than that he liked the way I looked—that was advanced non-frum behavior. And back then I was only a beginner.
“I’m just saying,” he said, knocking his shoulder into mine. It was sweaty hot and our skin stuck together for an instant. His eyes were a kind of golden green, and he focused on nothing but me. I could kiss him and Brian would never know.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
I blushed. He knows, I thought. Next he’ll say, You’re one of
girls, and walk away laughing. Now I know that he could no sooner have imagined the world I came from than he could have imagined life on the moon.
“I’m from New York,” I said.
“Your accent is sexy.”
Your father was the first person to tell me I spoke English with an accent. My first language was Yiddish; we spoke Yiddish at home and Yiddish in school. According to your father, my voice was also lower than most girls. Just like this boy in the tank top, he’d called it sexy.