Fiction: The End of Anti-Semitism

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December 31, 2009

I’d always done well in English class until the eighth grade, when Mrs. Taborsky distracted me with the paisley swirls of her bold print scarves. In Detroit’s northwestern suburbs, no one ever wore scarves indoors, especially if it wasn’t winter, unless you wanted people to think you were a bohemian.

On those rare days when Mrs. Taborsky wasn’t wearing one of her scarves, I found myself mesmerized by her purse, a woven twine bag decorated with faux seashells like a fishing net and its lime green Mondale for President button, or her fire engine red plastic raincoat, or her sea-foam-colored, zodiac-studded suede boots. Then there were her classroom walls, festooned with glitter-speckled rainbow letters that spelled out messages like “Reading is possibilities!” which contradicted my thorough grounding in grammar in English class the year before, when I’d received an A+. (How could the singular “reading” become the plural “possibilities”?)

Mrs. Taborsky was new to the Solomon Schecter Hebrew Academy, and there were rumors she owed her position to her soon-to-be ex-husband Rabbi Taborsky, who led the largest conservative synagogue in our suburb. Our family went to a smaller, less fashionable shul, but we’d stopped by the Taborskys’ synagogue for a couple of bar mitzvahs, and I remember watching her nod calmly in the front row during her husband’s sermons, her smooth brown hair pulled back in a chignon and crowned with a tan cloche hat that bobbed gently up and down.

But when she came to our school, Mrs. Taborsky’s hairdo had transformed into a Whitney Houston-inspired nest of orange-highlighted frizz that spurted out of her head like a fountain. Her lips were sealed in frosted pink lipstick and her eyes and cheeks were outlined in swaths of vivid pink, as if she expected someone or something wonderful to turn up shortly: perhaps her new job at the private Jewish school where I’d been a model student for years—until she and her crazy ways came along.

Because for the first time in my life, my grades in English class were plummeting below the failing mark. I knew how to ace a spelling test, fill in a grammar worksheet, or answer a reading comprehension question from a textbook. But how was I supposed to succeed at Mrs. Taborsky’s peculiar assignments, which she explained were not about traditional learning? (What was wrong with traditional learning?) Suddenly, instead of turning in essays, we kept “free-writing” journals, in which we had to reveal our feelings. Grammar was gone, in favor of “helpful hints.” No more spelling bees either; now we had “Words Equal Power!” jam sessions in which we were expected to leap out of our chairs to boldly proclaim the power of language. Worst of all, book reports were replaced with unknowable, indefinable, shape-shifting “literary responses.”

For our first literary response, Mrs. Taborsky had us choose partners and dramatize scenes from our favorite books. While the rest of the class eagerly teamed up to chat about props and costumes, I sat alone at my desk, even after Mrs. Taborsky said, “No one wants to buddy up with Alan? No one?” A more experienced teacher might have forced someone to join me, but apparently Mrs. Taborsky had read somewhere it was best to let students work these things out on their own. “Here’s an opportunity to be creative and attract a partner to yourself for next time by letting out the real you,” she advised me. “Let yourself go! There’s no such thing as right or wrong.”

Oh, yes there was such a thing as wrong, which I found out when I decided to perform a monologue from Anne of Green Gables in an orange wig and a straw hat that set the whole class to laughing and me to running out of the room in tears. When I came back, Mrs. Taborsky offered a meek smile, as if she were one of those kids who was just on the cusp of being popular and didn’t want to risk losing cool points by evincing her sympathy for me in public.

“I think I know what happened back there,” she told me later in the hallway. “You were trying to be someone you weren’t. Next time, let out the real you.”

I knew better, and planned to keep the real me under tight wraps for our next response, in the form of a diorama. It should have been simple enough. I turned an old shoebox of my mother’s into a garden populated by tiny stuffed animals who sat on doll furniture and ate off doll plates for The Wind in the Willows. But even before Mrs. Taborsky came into the room, her son Mark, whom the school had seen fit to place in our class, helpfully pointed out that I’d used a woman’s shoebox, which apparently, in conjunction with my Anne of Green Gables costume and my awkwardness in gym, served as incontrovertible evidence that the “real me” was a secret cross-dresser.

I immediately chucked the whole thing into the garbage. Better to take another zero than be known for weeks as a prepubescent trannie.

“I sense you’ve got so much bottled up inside,” sighed Mrs. Taborsky after the rest of the class had rushed out to recess. “We’re all waiting for you to let it out.” But Mrs. Taborsky was dead wrong. No one was waiting for me to do anything.

Thankfully, our next “response” was more private. Instead of having us read a book, Mrs. Taborsky wanted us to write our own short stories. Finally, I knew just what to do with a Taborsky English assignment. In fairy tales, you always read about princesses in need of rescue. My idea was to write about a handsome prince who needed to be rescued, in this case from his evil father. For the hero of my story, I chose a not-conventionally-handsome-but-attractive-in-his-own-way court scribe who would help the unloved and neglected (and most importantly dashing) prince escape from the castle where his evil father was holding him prisoner. Then they’d run away together to the sea.

Did I mention there was a prize involved? The author of the best story would be invited to participate in an all-day writing conference at the local community college. That meant he would get to miss an entire day of school (or as I thought of it, “hell,”) to be in the company of other serious-minded book lovers where he belonged.

I was a cinch to win.

Every day after school, I shut myself in my room and worked on my story. I spent hours on the loving descriptions of my fair prince’s golden-brown locks of hair, the silken sheets of his royal bedchamber, as well as the salty winds whipping off the sea and spraying over the joyous faces of the prince and his beloved rescuer.

I showed the final product to my mother, who said she was impressed by my lack of grammar mistakes. I suggested showing it to my father, but the anxious look on my mother’s face and the way she said, “He doesn’t really know about those things,” made me decide not to. I gave a copy to my sister, a high school senior, which she never read. Finally, the morning my story was due, I read it aloud to her as she drove me to school.

As my sister dropped me off, she gave me her review: “Isn’t it a little… gay?”

I slunk out of the car and crumpled the story into a ball.

Yet one more zero.

I told myself I didn’t care about the contest. Anyway it was clear the whole thing had been rigged from the start when the winner turned out to be Mark Taborsky. We had to waste several minutes of class time listening to him read aloud from his masterpiece, titled “The End of Anti-Semitism”:

“When it happened, the first thing I thought was, I can’t believe it. This isn’t happening.

We still lived in a different suburb then, one that was mostly non-Jewish. I was about to board a bus headed for summer camp with my non-Jewish friends, expecting fun and games, a summer of swimming under the sun and campfire songs and toasted marshmallows. I didn’t worry if the marshmallows were kosher or not.

The doors opened, and we were all crowding eagerly onto the bus, but the woman in the driver’s seat held out her hand, not to welcome me, but like a crossing guard stopping traffic. She said, ‘Wait your turn, Jew.’”

The other kids listened closely, as if Mark had just told them that a fire-breathing dragon had landed in the parking lot.

“The words burned me, like someone had thrown a fistful of stones in my face. My cheeks turned red and I stepped back, stunned to be singled out like that from my friends. I put my hand over my heart and touched the gold star hanging from my neck…”

Mark glanced down at the heavy diamond-studded gold star around his neck, no doubt a bar mitzvah present from his father. All the boys in my grade had them except me because my father felt it was inappropriate for a boy to wear jewelry.

“…That’s how she must have known! I realized for the first time how different I was. Suddenly, I understood all the stories I’d heard but never really paid attention to, of Jews from all over who’d been persecuted because of their simple religion. Why was I different? What was wrong with me that this woman had called me this name? I was confused and also very sad.

My parents complained to the camp, which refunded our money and fired the bus driver, who turned out to be a poor single mother living in a trailer park or something of that nature, which was probably why she’d never met any Jews before.

Now I go to a private Jewish Day School and while I will miss my non-Jewish friends, I feel more comfortable knowing that at least here nothing like that can ever happen again.

But what about the other Jews who don’t go to private Jewish schools? That is why when I grow up I want to be a lawyer and work for the end of anti-Semitism, so that nothing like what happened to me can ever happen again. Because it is the kind of thing that can lead to another Holocaust.”

When Mark looked up from his paper, the entire class burst into applause. I joined in too, but only because I didn’t want anyone to think I was a self-hating Jew. There wasn’t a single moment in Mark’s asinine story half as meaningful as my scene in which the scribe threw open the door to the prince’s bedroom and declared, “Take my hand, fair prince. For you are free, and you and I shall never be parted!” Still, Mrs. Taborsky was clapping and beaming as if her son had just discovered America.

The trip to the conference was wasted on Mark, who had no need to escape school. In the half-year he’d been a student at Hebrew Academy (part of Mrs. Taborsky’s deal was free tuition for her two boys), he’d accumulated more friendships than I’d had during my entire life, probably because he knew all the right movies to see and sports to watch and video games to play as well as the right things to say about them (like “Sweet!” with the “s” pronounced as an “sh,” ergo “Shweet!”). He could hit and throw and catch balls. He had a turned-up nose and golden-brown hair like the prince in my story. Also, it helped that he was a spectacularly unkind person. (How else did you get to be popular?) He took particular relish in mocking different students in class with crude insults that always seemed startlingly original, though they generally amounted to the same thing: girls were sluts, and boys were girls.

I was in love. Somehow I believed Mark’s cruelty was born of some unexpressed psychic pain that I could coax him to reveal if I could just get the two of us alone. My first opportunity to test my hypothesis occurred a month after Mark had won the writing contest. Mrs. Taborsky chose the two of us to travel to the gym storage room to return some orange traffic cones she’d borrowed to illustrate the perils of run-on sentences. I’d found the demonstration confusing and undignified, but everyone else seemed to enjoy it, especially Mark, who while posing as a semicolon, tripped up three different boys with his Air Nike sneaker while muttering the magic words, “Flying faggot!” One boy indeed went flying and, while Mark watched with a satisfied smirk, almost sliced his forehead on the edge of a desk. “Careful with the horseplay,” Mrs. Taborsky called out nervously from the board, her chalk squeaking out a dependent clause.

As I clutched my share of orange cones to my chest, I kept pondering the miracle of walking down the hall by Mark’s side. Think of something to say to him, I kept telling myself, but my mind went blank until we disappeared into the dusty-smelling storage room, and I mustered the courage to ask, “How was that conference?”

Mark, busy shoving a sack of red rubber dodge balls and some field hockey sticks under a shelf of out-of-date prayer books, snarled, “What conference?”

Just then I hated him. He didn’t deserve everything he had. Like a father who loved him and showed him how to throw balls and a mother who encouraged his so-called writing talent. And a God who’d given him such beautiful eyes.

“Oh, you mean that writing thing?” Mark went on. “Boring.”

He was pure evil. Pure… boy. Anything that didn’t involve the possibility of physical injury was boring. And those of us who were more sophisticated in our tastes were girls. “Boring, how?” I asked.

“Just boring,” he replied with his usual eloquence.

“I was wondering,” I said, trying not to choke on my own words, “was there anyone there who wrote a story about a prince who needed saving?”

“No,” he said quickly.

“You know, in the fairy tales, it’s always the princess who needs saving. So I thought I’d write one where it’s the prince who needs saving. I could show it to you. I mean, since you won the contest, you must know something about writing, right? If you wanted to read it. It’s good. At least, I think it’s good.”

“Why didn’t you win that competition?” he asked. “Everyone knows you’re the smartest kid in our grade. Probably the smartest kid in school.”

Flattered, not by the compliment to my intelligence but by the fact that he knew something about who I was, I mumbled, “I didn’t win because I didn’t enter.” “Why not?”

I shrugged. “I just couldn’t think of anything in time. Your mother…” It felt thrillingly naked to refer to Mrs. Taborsky as his mother, “always gives us these stupid creative assignments.”

“Shut up about my mother, you faggot,” he said.

So there it was, my punishment for committing the sin of whining. My father had always taught me (when he talked to me) never make excuses, never pose questions or whine. Never ask for anything. Follow the rules. Everyone gives you rules. Just follow them and you’d get what you want without having to humiliate yourself by asking for it.

But what about the situations when there were no rules to explain how to get what you wanted? When what you wanted couldn’t be asked for? Like what I wanted from Mark then, which somehow he’d deduced without my asking. Because though the orange cones were successfully put away, we were not leaving the storage room. Mark was blocking the door. He asked me, “Have you ever done anything with girls?”

I told him I had.

“With who?”

“Whom, not who,” I said on instinct, then came up with a name: “Adrienne Cohen.” Adrienne had been my babysitter when I’d required the services of a babysitter. “Never heard of her. How do you know her?”

I thought fast. “I saw her outside once, standing on her lawn. I thought she was cute. So I asked her if she wanted to go record shopping at Harmony House sometime.” Mark burst out laughing. “You’re lying,” he said.

“Honestly,” I said.

“No one says, ‘honestly,’” he said. “You’re lying.”

“I told her to meet me at Harmony House.”

“No one meets anyone at Harmony House,” he said, the flicker of a smile playing at the corners of his lips. “Tell me the truth. I’ll have so much more respect for you if you say, ‘Mark, okay, I was lying. I never asked anyone to meet me at Harmony House. I don’t even know anyone named Adrienne Cohen.’”

“I really do know her,” I said. Unfortunately, my voice cracked.

“So what did you do with this Adrienne?” he said in a vaguely threatening tone.

I shrugged.

“You didn’t do anything.”

“We frenched,” I said.

“What does that mean,” he said, giggling a little. “We frenched.”

“Aren’t we done here?” I said. “Can’t we go?”

I tried to reach past him for the door, but he grabbed my hand, then put it on the front of his pants. He rubbed it there. “Did she do this to you?”

His jeans felt rough and, in the place where I was rubbing, very full. How had he guessed about me? I’d worked so hard all these years to disqualify myself, to hide behind the sidelines.

“Don’t let go until I tell you to stop,” he said. “Or I’ll tell everyone you’re a fag.”

My sister who drove me to school noticed it, and asked why I acted so grouchy all of a sudden in the mornings. I said it was because I was stuck sharing rides with a self-absorbed jerk. Michael, my oldest sibling, noticed it too when he came home from college to announce his engagement to a former cheerleader. “Oh, I hoped so!” was my mother’s ecstatic reaction. Her hands flew up in the air, then caught the cheerleader’s face in her hands. “We’re taking you both out for a steak dinner!”

Is that what she’d have said if I’d told her I was jerking off Mark Taborsky in the gym storage room? “Oh, I hoped so!”

“How about you, squirt?” Michael asked me. “Aren’t you excited to have a new sister?”

“What difference does it make?” I muttered, then thought of something I heard Mark Taborsky say a few times. “Women are all the same, anyway. Sluts.”

Michael’s smile vanished.

He and his cheerleader got an even colder reception from my father, who said he refused to be seen in public with Michael because he’d recently pierced his left ear (not the gay one). According to my father, men with jewelry were not men.

“It’s no problem,” my mother said. “We can celebrate right here. I’ve got leftover spaghetti. I can heat it up in a few minutes.” On the stove, she meant, not in a microwave. My parents were suspicious of microwaves, computers, and cable television.

So we ate leftover spaghetti to mark my brother’s engagement, my mother, my sister and I in the kitchen, my father in his study with the door closed, Michael and the cheerleader in the living room with all the lights off, only the blue aura from our television glowing on his tear-stained cheeks.

For our next literary response, to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mrs. Taborsky asked us to write a reflection about family, and so I described the celebration of my brother’s engagement. Oddly enough, I finally received my overdue A+ on it, and I could tell Mrs. Taborsky now regretted choosing her son over me to go to the writers’ conference earlier that year. She called my parents to tell them they had a budding writer on their hands, and that was when I hoped they might finally notice what was different about me.

Instead, my father asked why I’d made him the bad guy. “I’m not that bad, am I?” he asked, trying to sound as if he were making a joke. My mother said my story was well-written, not a single grammar mistake, but there was something sad in her eyes when she said it, as if she were sorry there were no grammar mistakes.

My brother Michael read it too, and said what was I talking about, no such thing had ever happened. He said he hadn’t cried over something as silly as leftover spaghetti.

Mark Taborsky promised to read my story, but when I asked him if he had during one of our meetings in the storage room (it was the only place he acknowledged my existence), he said no.

“Why not?” I demanded.

“I don’t know anything about English,” he said.

“What do you mean? Your story won the contest.”

“Only because my Dad wrote the whole thing for me.” He spit on the floor. Mark was the kind of boy for whom spitting was as natural an act as breathing. “I didn’t even care about that stupid bus driver so much. My Dad was the one who made the big deal. He thought it would make a good sermon.”

I thrust a copy of the story at his chest. “You read this, or…”

Though I didn’t say what I would do, he could easily imagine. I’d finally figured out that it took two people to have sex, and that I had just as much to reveal about him as he had about me. Actually, he had more to lose. He had friends, even a girl rumored to be his girlfriend, though he swore to me they never did anything together, that she’d once tried doing what I did all the time and was a complete bitch about it. “She just sort of touched me once and then acted all proud of herself,” he said. “Like she wanted me to give her a cookie or something. Being with you is so much easier.”

“Really?” It came out involuntarily. Usually I tried to act blasé around him.

“Yeah,” he said, with strange tenderness. “I mean, it’s amazing. You’re more into dick than my own girlfriend.”

He used the same tone a week later when he told me, “So I read your story or whatever. It’s good. Really fucking good.”

“Thanks,” I said, blushing.

“Is your dad really like that?” he asked.

“Worse,” I said. “What about yours?”

“He tries to buy me off. When he divorced my mom, it was like Hannukah every day. But he doesn’t know me. You know? He’s this big important rabbi. He thinks he’s a celebrity or something. Super-Jew or whatever.”

“Can I ask you something?” I said. “Why are you do things to people?” He didn’t seem to understand. “You know, like trip them or call them names or treat them like shit. Why do you do that?”

“Because it’s fun?”

“But why?” I asked. He couldn’t answer. “I wish I understood you.”

“I don’t fucking understand myself,” he said. “You really are like a girl.”

“Why?” I asked, horrified.

“Because you want to talk so much before doing anything.” He unzipped himself. “Here. I wore these for you.” He meant my favorite pair of his underwear. Red, silk, low-cut, soft. I felt genuinely moved by the fact that he’d thought of me, hoped to please me in some way.

“What’s up with you today?” he asked when we were finished. “Did you get a haircut or something? You seem different.”

Everyone was telling me that all the time now. The only people who didn’t seem to notice I was different were my parents.

It was spring. One day at recess, I didn’t feel like standing outside in the outfield and hoping no balls would fall my way. Instead I hid in the library, which was usually deserted when the weather got warm. That was when I saw Mrs. Taborsky standing at the end of a shelf of books on Jewish Values (the section no one ever bothered to go to). She was looking out the window at the little kids’ playground, and crying.

I was too shocked by the spectacle of a blubbering teacher to sneak away. Even in eighth grade, teachers didn’t seem to be the same as people.

Then she noticed me. “I’m sorry,” she said, dabbing her eyes with one of those colorful scarves, but I didn’t know why she’d apologized.

“It’s okay,” I told her. I cried all the time.

“What have you got there?” she asked.

I blushed as I held up Anne of Green Gables, which I was reading for the tenth time. Not a boy’s book. Thankfully, Mrs. Taborsky did me the courtesy of not stating the obvious. “I loved that whole series when I was young,” she said. “I always wanted to visit Prince Edward Island.”

“Me too! Did you ever get there?”

She shook her head and smiled in that adult knowing way.

“I was busy with other things,” she said. “I had kids. You’ll see.”

But how would I see? Who would ever consent to be impregnated by me? And then I had the strangest realization: that in some way, Mrs. Taborsky was my mother-in-law. In fact, someday she might become like my real mother-in-law. Mark and I would eventually outgrow our storage room and maybe in college we’d move in together, share an apartment like good friends. And I’d cook for him, even though I didn’t know how. (Well, no matter. I’d ask my mom for her spaghetti recipe.) I’d make his bed. Or our bed? There was so much I could do.

“You must be a good mom,” I blurted out, overwhelmed by my feelings for Mark.

She seemed puzzled. “Really? I mean, thank you. That’s a very nice compliment. What makes you say that?”

“Because your son…” I couldn’t finish. Not without arousing suspicion.

“He’s a good kid, isn’t he?” she said, tearing up.

Actually, even I had to admit that though Mark was a lot of things, “a good kid” was not one of them. Only that morning, he’d made a girl cry by telling her she was as ugly as a rug-munching dyke. He regularly stole milk from the cafeteria and books from the library to deface them with messages like “Reading sucks my kosher wiener,” and “This book for kikes only.” He’d stepped on Ronnie Cohen’s hand on purpose to win a ball game. And he was almost single-handedly responsible for the committal to a mental hospital of a troubled Israeli teacher who had a weak command of English and even weaker command of dealing with smart-alecky students.

“Don’t tell anyone you saw me here,” said Mark’s mother, leaving the library.
“I promise, Mrs. Taborsky,” I said.

“After today, it’s not Mrs. Taborsky anymore.” She patted my shoulder and moved past me and into the hall, toward the forbidden territory of the teachers’ lounge.

No one was very surprised on the last day of school when Mrs. Taborsky announced that A) she was now Ms. Schwarz, and B) she wouldn’t be with us next year because she was moving to California to teach art.

After her announcement, during which many tears were shed and many promises to “K. I. T. 4-ever” were made, I bumped into Mark on purpose in the hall and whispered, “Meet me.” But he didn’t show up in our usual place.

I tried the experiment again later that day. “Meet me.”

But he said, “What are you talking about, faggot?”

I panicked for a second. What had I done? Why was he betraying our secret in public this way? But then I realized that he wasn’t referring to the things we’d done together in the storage room when he said “faggot.” It was just a name he used for kids who were weaker or less popular than he was.

I resolved then and there to learn what to do with a ball, and to stop reading books like Anne of Green Gables. And above all to stop writing fairy tales, stories, essays, even grocery lists. Who knows, I might have kept to those resolutions had I not found, on the last day of school, a note mysteriously tucked into the back pocket of my jeans. As I unfolded the looseleaf notebook paper, I immediately recognized Mark’s handwriting:

“So I guess I won’t see you anymore. I hear they have gangs in the schools in L.A., with guns, and if you’re Jewish, you’d better join a gang if you want to stay alive because they’re really anti-Semitic there. Anyway, you write good stories. You should write more of them. Sorry if I was an asshole to you sometimes. Just know, I didn’t mean it. But this isn’t a love letter or anything.”

Bullshit, Mark Taborsky, I thought, reading the note again and again until I knew the words by heart. This is a fucking love letter if I ever saw one.

When I got home, I ignored my mother’s offer of fresh cupcakes and went straight to my room, where I opened my notebook. And I wrote: “Mark Taborsky was the meanest, saddest, best-looking bully in our class. He didn’t know it, but he was also my friend…”

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