Rosh Hodesh Sivan was breaking my heart. Every day since last month’s full moon shone metallic on the bay, little shards of light had been disappearing, darkening in the sun’s changing angle.
Every day, my heart grew darker too, as if it were intent on keeping time with the planets. Could my girlfriend have timed her exit so exactly? I wouldn’t put it past her, not with her passion for all things astronomical.
When Jackie dropped the bomb two weeks ago, I was thrown off guard – like a wobbling planet with no axis at all. All day I’d been flitting about, excited to celebrate our seventh anniversary. I couldn’t have been happier. I’d found the love of my life. By the end of the night, my mood tanked like some start-up gone south. I’m in love with Annie, Jackie said as I was tearing the wire frame off the champagne cork. Her project leader? Talk about a buzz kill.
Now, here in the park, celebrating the Solstice and Rosh Hodesh (if you could call what we were doing celebrating) I cannot for the life of me remember why I didn’t stand my ground. I just listened, stony faced. Looking back, I guess it was because I really believed her. I was at least old enough to know that once the train of love left the station, there was no stopping.
But now, just two short weeks later, the ‘why’ is becoming clear to me - why we were even together in the first place, and how she didn’t need me anymore. I had had something she’d wanted. “My whole life, I felt like I was a Jewish person in a WASP body. It was so confusing – until I met you,” Jackie confessed. She had just finished her conversion.
We had a great life. She inspired me, made me a better person. I even stopped driving to work; started taking the bus. And I went back to studying Torah – of my own accord.
Until tonight, I’d started to feel like I was moving on, getting over her.
I hear the clinking, high notes before I see anyone. I listen closely into the space between Jackie’s guitar and the night’s sounds. When a sliver of moon fades behind the evening fog like a searchlight lost in steam, I pull my camp chair closer to the fire. Jackie plucks “L’kha Dodi” on an old Martin, oblivious to the intrusion. Framed by orangey campfire light, her shoulder length hair falls in her eyes. Over her? I don’t think so.
I close my eyes, Jackie’s mournful song painting a picture of a nameless ancient city. I can see crumbling bricks, narrow alleyways, parapets and domes. Patty beats out an energetic, but erratic, rhythm on a tambourine while Jackie’s guitar grows louder, drowning out the indeterminate noise outside of our circle. I wonder: Will she still be Jewish with her new Shiksa girlfriend?
Patty and I chant an off-key round; Jackie throws in a wild ululation at the end for good measure. The old Martin completes our four-part harmony; I recognize the subtle half tones, sympathetic notes, and an unfamiliar bass line accompaniment.
I scootch closer to the fire, catching Jackie’s eye as she rifles through her guitar case for a guitar pic. A chill fog is settling. I pull a pair of gloves out of my pocket, offer them to Jackie. She frowns, digs into a side pocket of her guitar case, coming up with a pair of old cotton gloves. Patty chants the closing prayer, “Baruch atah Adonoi…”
Just last week, Patty announced that the letter we wrote to the editor of Commentary had gotten accepted for publication. “Closure,” I parroted back to Patty when I found out about the publication, written as a coda to our two years celebrating Rosh Hodesh. “We may be going out,” Patty said sadly, “but we’re going out in a flame of glory.” Jackie and I caught the letter writing fever. I’m not sure what got into us. I guess it was easier than dealing with our own shit, even if Jackie insisted that we were on high moral ground, making a point about reinventing Judaism. “Think of it as a performance piece,” Patty had cajoled us. And so we collaborated on an incendiary letter to the editor, rejecting the vocal contingent who criticized us Renewals for ‘expropriating a traditional practice” because we had a ‘take what you like and leave the rest’ attitude. In our case, we took Rosh Hodesh, the Solstice, the Equinox, and left a lot of mitzvot. “I’d rather sing songs to the moon than change my dishes for Passover any day,” I’d written. And, ‘Rosh Hodesh was given to the women to honor their commitment to monotheism when others were building the Golden Calf. Well, we are the women, are we not?” Jackie wrote. Since then, we’d become minor celebs.
The dying fire glows hot, red coals flicker under the flames. My heart skips and a nightmare vision crosses my mind screen – a dry plain replaces the river of singing and we’re lying dead in little pieces around this campsite with dirt in our wounds.
“Hey,” I reply to the darkness, as nonchalantly as if I were at the teddy bear’s picnic and not a pitch-black urban park on spring equinox.
“What?” Patty mouths.
“Shh…” I touch my index finger to my lips.
Patty’s thick bare hands grip the arms of her flimsy camp chair.
My mind racing, I calculate, trying to focus on how fast we could run. An offshore wind blows the fog east, allowing a few bright stars to shine through brittle oak leaves. A sliver of moon hangs like a lazy “u” off the dark side of the moon. Eucalyptus shivers on the hill above, giving off a medicinal aroma. Despite the fire, I’m shivering inside my thick fleece jacket. The clinking steps forward.
“Whatcha all doing?”
“Not much,” I lead. Jackie fumbles with her guitar case. Patty is inert, staring a hole through my forehead.
Heck. Maybe he just wants to walk through our campsite. That’s it. Maybe if we start singing again he’ll go away.
Patty leans forward, one foot angled out.
I search for my voice to start another round of singing, but it is stuck. My palms sweat and all at once the jacket I was chilled in just a few moments ago feels stifling. I look over at Jackie, her face now distorted by campfire light, like someone is shining a flashlight from her chin – her cheeks stand out and her eyes are black wells. Two more men step out from behind a stand of wide oaks.
Slivers of broken glass reflect fire light, shine orange and red. From our camp chairs we’re low, too low. We’re so low we’re in line with our intruder’s knees. At ringleader’s knee, there’s a broken bottleneck, the sharp edge pointing downward, tapping against his metal boot buckle.
I can’t look up or even cock my head. My eyes skirt the ground, searching for crumbs of words, quick comebacks, ways to make these guys disappear.
The three men are tall, bulky. Even if we weren’t on the ground in camp chairs, even if we were standing full height, they would dwarf us. Slow. I breathe in. Slow.
“What are you? Witches?”
Patty looks up, her mouth moving with the beginning of an excoriation.
Jackie’s eyes bulge, her arms tight across her chest. Her left foot is tapping the dirt as if in time with some inner music.
“Witches?” I laugh nervously.
“What’s all this stuff?”
Ringleader gestures toward the littered picnic table where Shabbat candles are burning low. There’s a gold-rimmed Kiddush cup, a Tanakh.
I look up, take them in sideways. The chopped body image recedes. I know these guys, or at least their type. For some reason, I’m sure these homies don’t want real trouble. We’re just a little unscheduled entertainment.
“We’re just hangin,” I now assume the role of spokeswoman. Why I feel so cocksure is anyone’s guess, but I’m flooded with a brand of confidence usually only available to me behind my very safe, very predictable desk.
Jackie’s gaze is trained on me. I give her the secret sign we made up when we played softball: “Run!”
Jackie stays put.
“We’re singing. We’re chillin.” Any more laissez faire and I’d be tanning at the beach.
Ringleader looks around, searching the camp for clues. Sidekick steps into the firelight, white as an Albino. He taps another broken bottle against his boot. Clink. Clink. Guy three has a baseball cap on that shades his face. He clinks his chains.
Sidekick: “You shittin us. You witches! Look, there’s candles.” He notices the tambourine, lying in the dirt. “These chicks up to sumpin.”
Sidekick takes a step in toward the fire, lighting up his face as bright as a line up. I catch a glimpse of his dirty brown hair, pocked skin, doughy neck.
“We’re just doing our moon festival…” Patty starts, but Jackie gives her the “quit” sign, slicing her hand across her throat.
In the middle of the fire pit, a heavy log caves in on top of one that’s just imploded, burnt to ash. The fire shifts, as the flames get smaller, lower. The circumference of light around the circle lessens so that Jackie is in shadow, and I can just barely see Patty across from me. A pile of coals burns red hot.
As that big log crushes the burnt one, all my resolutions about my breakup with Jackie crumble and I want her back as badly as I want to get out of this campsite with my life.
“Moon what?” Ringleader asks. “Is that why three chicks up here in the dark, alone?”
“She’s just kidding,” I say. “What are you guys up to?” I distract all three broken-bottle clinkers toward me.
On the outskirt of the circle, Jackie eases out of her chair, unnoticed. In the shadow, I watch her inching away, quickly disappearing behind a thick oak. My mind races like numbers on a stopwatch. At the same time, I’m watching these three bruisers amble over to the table with our candleholders, Kiddush cup, left over challah.
A stellar jay caws - the sharp noise sends a jolt through all of us. I turn to see it taking off with bread crust.
I make my voice low now, slow and deliberate.
The thrill bottle clinkers turn around, look toward me.
“What are we doing?” I ask, answering a question with a question. “We were just having a bar b q.” I talk to Ringleader directly, ignore bottle tapper and chain clinker. “The park’s a free space.”
Sidekick steps out of the light.
I start to feel like I’m locked in some kind of kung-fu fake out with Ringleader.
I can just about hear Ringleader’s wheels turning – is it worth my time to mess up these three witches? It would be fun to scare the daylights out of them. Can’t get caught in the slammer for that now could I?
Jackie out of sight, Patty sits alone on her side of the campsite, shivering through her fleece.
I’m sparring with these guys when suddenly every atom in my body coalesces, grouping into hard, tight knots and gripping into a fortress of defense. Energy flows back and forth between ringleader and me like heavy metal or water – it’s viscous, thick.
Just then chain clinker steps into the circle his face catching the glow. There’s a mean glint in his eyes, even meaner than Ringleader.
I’m standing there, watching Patty shiver, wracking my brain, and hoping Jackie is on her way to making a 911 call. Suddenly, I can’t live without her.
Tap. I’m not sure what to say but I know that I want to end this cat and mouse game. Maybe they want money. Duh! Maybe they just want to shake us down, but first they have to tease us, mess with our heads. I’m about to offer them the payoff when sidekick makes a move.
From his back pocket, a small handgun.
“Get up,” he says “I don’t give a shit who you are or what you all doin. We don’t like it.”
I’m watching that handgun, loose in sidekick’s still lowered hand, when Jackie tiptoes back into the circle. She’s in the shadow of the stand of oaks, behind our intruders. The white gloves flash in the dying firelight. Quiet as a cat, she leans into the fire. While the three are turned sideways, conversing in whispers, I watch Jackie reach her arms into the pit of the fire, flinging a handful of hot coals in the direction of the men. Ringleader screams out “motherfucker!!” At least one of Jackie’s coals hit its mark. A random shot rings out.
“RUN” Jackie yells, her voice as loud as if through a megaphone.
Patty is at my side, grabbing my hand. We take off like bandits, into the brush. We run, finding our footing by pale streetlight. We’re like one person, running past the picnic tables, tripping over rocks in the dark, the weak park lamplight guiding us.
I want to look around, but the men are close. Quickly we’re down on the street, back at the rose garden – running out in traffic toward Euclid Street.
“Bitch burnt his face. I’m gonna kill ‘er.”
A shot rings. Patty and I duck behind cars, run low to the ground. I take a fast right turn at Cedar where, a few houses down, a student is turning the key into his apartment building. We run downhill, tailgate into the building. The student flinches, starts to push us back out the door, when he catches sight of our dirty jackets, ashen faces. We huddle there in the corner of the lobby, behind the locked door, our assailants sailing by, gun guy holding our challah cover to his head. Ringleader scours the street for a sign of us.
In the distance, the scream of sirens.
“That way,” Patty points down the hill. “Jackie…Tall, blond-ish, slim, 5’8” …jacket? Was she? Yes, she was wearing a jacket.”
We point to the park as the cops run, boots clomping. We give our full report to the recording officer, a tall blond built like Brad Pitt.
While Patty stutters out details of our assailant’s entrance into our camp, I realize something about Jackie. All of a sudden I know why she left and what I have to do.
“I’m fine.” It’s Jackie on the phone. She may be fine, but her voice is shaking badly. Our cop radios for a third car to pick up Jackie.
She’s safe. I squeeze Patty’s hand, the lump in my throat giving way.
Jackie limps into Patty’s kitchen holding her bandaged hands, her face distorted with pain. A white, blood and dirt stained cloth covers her hands.
“You burned them,” I jump up, “The coals…”
I gather Jackie into my arms, feel her cold torso through her shirt and the navy blue police issued blanket. Let’s get you a sweatshirt.
“We have to get her to the hospital, but she wanted to come here to get you,” a new cop points at me.
I guide Jackie into the living room; sit up close to her on the couch. “My hands.”
A scattershot of static radios blare in the other room. I want to hold Jackie, rewind the night, rewind the last month, rewind to before, when she was rubbing crème into her hands as I jealously watched.
“You were amazing back there.” I think but don’t say: I didn’t think you had it in you.
“So were you! The way you talked to those shits!”
“Listen,” I keep my voice low. “I know why you left…”
“I don’t even know!”
The arguments, the late nights, the sleeping on the couch – it’s all coming back to me. Jackie wanted to be a mother, but I wasn’t having any of it. “I’m not ready,” I said, month after month.
“I think I know, but either way, I was pretending it wasn’t true. I’m not sure I’m ready now, but maybe I am. Anyway, I realized tonight…”
Our cop shouts out: “My guy thinks he’s got them! Three, tall guys, right?” he shouts at Patty excitedly. “One Caucasian, one African-American, one, what?”
I hear Patty hesitate. “I don’t know.”
I take Jackie’s loosely bandaged hands in my own, not sure what to do but simply hold them.
“Don’t go,” she whispers.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I tell her, pulling her close.
Outside the dining room window, the fog clears and the new sliver of moon sails by, a bright crescent shining like Artemis’s breastplate, or the light sword of a sorcerer.
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