You used to go sit in the Cathedral grounds after school. This I remember, though there’s not much I remember from back then: little whispers of memories, faded into the noise and fog of a city I’ve not been to since February. I’m happy to tell you the discomfort of childhood and adolescence has all but faded. I know at the beginning of the school year the light would be warm there and the shadow would be cold and the leaves would be golden and the peacocks would prowl, and I know that later in the school year you would sit below that pile of a statue out front, with the huge crab and the globe and the twisted-necked giraffes atop, and your cheeks would blush pink in the cold, and the color of autumn would have faded from everything other than a child’s coat, a store awning.
I remember camp at the Cathedral, too. Summer city stench, graham crackers you decorated with canned frosting and M&Ms, sprinklers on asphalt, walks to the Barnard pool, rubber goggles pulling on damp hair. I remember the baby bird on the street corner, I assume it was a pigeon chick. I think it was all pink skin, wide yellow beak, but I’m not sure. You thought the sun would bake it. You didn’t know it was long gone.
There was one strawberry shortcake popsicle left in the canteen, and your counselor let you have it, and you thought it was the greatest gesture of generosity in the world.
I remember summers Mom would make orange-pineapple popsicles, that the apartment would sing of swingset squeaks, sunblock was cold and Mom pushed it around your skin every morning before you departed into the thick blanket of tri-state area humidity, onto an off-season school bus whose purplish pleather seats would stick to the undersides of your thighs.
You’ll grow out your bangs at the end of elementary school and it will be a pain in the butt, and then in college you’ll have that little row of hair again, peeking into your vision.
Senior year of high school you will look through the scrapbook they gave you at the end of camp at the Cathedral, and you will notice two things:
1) A photograph of two children: one, you, dark hair cut to your chin as to be low maintenance, little dimpled hand clutching a cotton candy stick; one, a blond boy you realize immediately is now your high school classmate;
2) A note from your counselor that you could not read last time you opened this scrapbook. She wishes her daughter will end up like you. You sob, clutching thirteen year old construction paper stapled into a book, at seventeen years old.
There’s not some sort of divine prophecy that means your world will disintegrate at sixteen, like it did for Bubbe. There’s no countdown. You are lucky. Bubbe ended up getting the security she wanted for you.
I’m sorry to tell you that the weight loss will happen. I am sorry because it didn’t come as the growing-into-yourself, gaining-interest-in-exercise-and-becoming-the-hot-girl summer story you’re hoping for. It will not be that simple. You will not be happy about it, even while other people seem delighted. They’ll ask how you did it, as though offering a trophy for a race you didn’t mean to participate in. Your clothes will stop fitting right. Your bones will push against your skin differently. There will be little hollows underneath your clavicles. I have not gotten used to them yet.
Is erosion an achievement?
Do you remember the things I can only repeat from anecdotes? Not speaking before preschool? Picking up little pieces of lint from the carpet? I remember a yellow rectangle of the light in my doorway, as seen from my bassinet. The neighbor boy you’ll develop a crush on in middle school slept in it before you.
Do these little thoughts make sense to you? I do not have a story to tell. I have fleeting sense memories, thoughts I’ve pinned to canvas and framed in the back of my brain, things Mom has told me that have become part of my self-understanding.
I wish I came more prepared. There’s not a lot of questions I can answer.
I’ve been lighting Shabbat candles lately, for myself, in my room. That must come as a surprise. But don’t you miss Shabbat at home? Don’t you love it at school? I remember the candles in the daylight and the Kedem grape juice in little Dixie cups and the store bought challah with the egg wash that pooled and hardened around its edge. I remember the feelings of some of the songs you’d sing, though I have forgotten their melodies and words. I’ve been looking for them. The internet has not been too helpful, other than some of Debbie’s melodies, the Reform movement melodies, but not the Conservative movement ones. I’ve been lighting Shabbat candles, lately, for myself, in my room, because I’m not among people who do it. Because it feels like home. Because every Friday, I yearn for a rest.
You know by now that Debbie is a lesbian, right? You know that she and Lisa were in a relationship? I still don’t know what Mom and Dad were thinking by having you go around telling people about your “best friend’s mother’s roommate.”
Did you learn about it the way everyone else did? In her obituary in the Times?
I wish you’d known, about her. Maybe it would have changed things. Maybe you would have figured things out.
Pork really isn’t worth it. I’m pretty sure you know that, but know that I still don’t really eat it, outside pork buns my friends make on the Lunar New Year. Mom will take you to a fried clam place from when she was traveling in Massachusetts as a kid, and that’ll be a little treat too. Eat them with lemon juice. Zayde used to order shrimp cocktails. Don’t worry about him or Bubbe.
You’ll enjoy language-learning eventually. You’ll hear Hebrew speakers converse and something will click and you’ll be able to engage. You’ll later wish you knew Western Armenian like some of your fellow Diasporans do –
Oh, yes, remember? Your Armenian heritage? It will make more sense, eventually. You’ll go to school with Armenian-Americans, and, later, with Armenian international students, and they will recognize themselves in your eyebrows and the foods you eat. Some of them will pronounce their names differently. Their dialect was not nearly exterminated.
You won’t have any need for the dead languages you study at school, but it’s worth it anyway. The boy you’ve convinced yourself would be playing a cruel trick if he confessed to liking you will be in your Modern Hebrew class, and a cruel woman will be your teacher, and she’ll love him and hate you.
Your middle school teachers won’t be thrilled about your choice of high school, even if the name is an artifact of its founding at Trinity Church centuries before, even if the pluralistic grappling with faith and ethics at Trinity is more relevant than the insecure ignorance of religious dynamics found at other schools, even if Trinity’s situation within the Upper West Side of Manhattan makes the idea of any ignorance of its own Jewish culture and makeup a joke. “Remember there’s only one God!” a visiting faculty member will say in eighth grade upon hearing of your decision. I don’t know if there is anything good to say to that, so do not worry when you are too baffled to respond. Trinity was Episcopal. So is the Cathedral. So was your mother, technically, before she converted.
Maybe they’re right. I don’t remember all that much. It didn’t take long to forget. You’ll meet people with goyish names, Matthews and Jameses and Johns and Sues and Stellas and Veronicas, for the first time since summer camp at the Cathedral, and your references to the Talmud, your use of Yiddish-isms that haven’t been assimilated into general American English, will fall flat, and you’ll watch your classmates scream along to a certain Mariah Carey holiday song each year, and you’ll feel like an outsider for entirely new additional reasons.
The blond boy from camp at the Cathedral may be the closest you ever come to having a crush in high school. He’s sweet, and he’s in your physics class, and he lives up by the Cathedral, of course, and Mom would like him. He’s named for a saint. Maybe he would have been interested.
I’m pleased to tell you that you’ll eventually be brave enough to let boys get close enough to hurt you. I’m sad to tell you that they’ll be happy to do it.
Does that sound glamorous to you? It makes me feel tired and hollow.
Have you been through that weeks’ long anxiety spell yet? I am sorry. You will not gain more clarity on why it happened. I remember feeling sick well. I remember restless nights, panic, screaming, shallow breaths. Dear father, taking you on walks at what you feel must be an ungodly hour, and is for your nine-PM-bedtime father, but is probably eleven o’clock. Sleeping from exhaustion, waking early. You will go to that diner with the wall-to-wall windows facing Broadway, the cold April morning light streaming against your back as you sit before a monstrous breakfast plate, an omelet with brown spots and hashbrowns and rye toast and little butter cups lidded with golden foil, and feel sick. It is okay that you are unable to eat it right now. I promise.
I don’t have the answers you want to hear. This is not some momentary illness that passes and does not need further examination. This memory remains difficult to recall in detail. Or, rather, it is one of the clearer memories, but it makes me feel sick. I am feeling that nausea now. Thankfully, I’m a little better at handling it, but sometimes it gets ahead of me.
I can’t bear to tell you why it’s gotten so bad lately. But it is something I’m not sure I would have been able to withstand a year ago.
Oh, damnit, you’re afraid of death. Right.
It’s not that scary. It gets less scary. Does that help?
I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m this way. I am doing the best I can. I am the result of doing the best I can. This is not weakness. This is strength despite everything.
I want to tell you the world is good. And that it is better for me to live in now. And it is. It is very hard. But it is worth it.
I know it is exhausting to never be in a room with someone who understands everything about you. It will not ever happen. You are too unlikely a combination for that, but so is everyone. That’s what it’s like for other people, too, at least to some degree. It’s not only because most everyone around you right now is a full, matriarchal Ashkenazi Jew, with the blond curls and Upper East Side community to match. You won’t find a perfect fit in high school, or after, either. One doesn’t exist.
I don’t know what to make of you. That is the truth. I don’t have any clean stories.
I can tell you the things you’ll probably be happy to hear. The dreams stopped coming this year. Unfortunately, they came every year and a half before then. They didn’t change all that much, maybe they became a little more specific with my growing understanding of what they were about. When I’ve forced my lips open these past few times it has woken me up, and the sound was in the waking world. I do not know why the dreams stopped. I expected one in September. I am thankful it did not come.
I can tell you the things you’ll probably be happy to hear. When you get to a certain age they finally make swallowable pills for you and you’ll never have to taste that chalky acrid grape or orange ever again. You’ll stop throwing up on airplanes thanks to meds, too. Not that you’ll be on airplanes nearly as much once Bubbe and Zayde are gone.
I don’t know what to make of you. You are inside me, somewhere, wandering, you must be. I hope you are. I was born two and a half years ago. I shall not tell you why. I wouldn’t know where to start.
I’m not sure if you had to die. Did you die? Are you in there? I look for you, all the time. A few weeks ago I watched the Rugrats Hanukkah special and listened to Hanukkah music, even though the holiday wasn’t to happen for another month. I know that sounds like goyishe nonsense but fuck it. Let me have a holiday season disconnected from the actual meaning or time of the holiday. It’s not like I can escape the season anyway.
I know that’s not the whole truth. I know you like the tree sellers that come from Quebec every December and set up on the street corner, the little sawed-off forest that springs up yearly against the Rite Aid. I know you like the alpine smell it brings to add to the occasional Halal cart and coffee shop spill and damp garbage smells you come across walking to school. I know you like the collie the vendors bring along in their trailer, the green lushness buttressing the sidewalk.
The kindergarten teachers would make those little flame hats out of stapled construction paper loops for the kids, little candles in a row, and they’d sing Ner Li. The staples scratched you, but the melody was nice. As were the crappy chocolate coins in the tinkling foil wrappers. As were sufganiyot, your little mouth collapsing the airy dough, cracking the glaze, the jelly oozing from inside. They’re sticky.
I learned some of Debbie’s songs on the guitar, did I tell you? They’re nice to have handy.
I know you are not as happy as I pretend you are. I am now happy in ways you are not. I am sad in ways you cannot imagine.
Do you like the person speaking to you? Yes, I cut my hair. In April. It’s nice to have it off my neck. The maintenance is easier.
I get to muck around in the countryside as much as I like, these days. I’m in Vermont most of the year now. I watch the leaves turn golden from the library windows and I feel my face flush in the winter of finals. The spring is muddy, and we don’t have those trees up here that blossom and the wind carries their petals up Broadway like snow. The mud lasts right up to April, at the earliest. But it’s good to feel the heat finally return to the air.
You will graduate high school from the Cathedral. You’ll sing Parting Glass, and one day, rehearsing in one of the building’s chapels, your clear voices shaking and mixing and sweeping up the limestone arches, you’ll clutch your friend as the sound of toned cries envelops you.
You will be a member of the chorus, and you will wish to weep.
Shira Ben-David (they/he) is an artist and writer living in New York City. They graduated from Bennington College in May 2021, having studied and wrestled with the ethics and complexities of narrative and creation.