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My Shaygetz

My parents agree to let me work as a waitress for the summer in a Jewish sleep away camp in the Berkshires. I’ll have to haul trays of food, bus my area, and set up my tables, all for one hundred dollars for the entire summer, no tipping allowed. I don’t care though. Two of my best girlfriends, Nancy and Heddy, are also planning to go. I can’t wait to leave. The only bad part is that I’ll miss my boyfriend’s high school graduation because I have to go up to camp a few days early for staff orientation.

“I feel so bad,” I tell Julian.

We are in his room, stretched out on his unmade bed. He murmurs something understanding, but he’s preoccupied with my trying to undo my pants with one hand and my bra with the other. I’m a junior, and we’ve been dating since the beginning of my sophomore year.

“Julian?” I say. “Are you listening?”

“Not really, “ he says.

He has successfully unhooked my bra and expertly worked his hand around to my breasts. I laugh and return his kisses. He smells like sandalwood. I love the skin on his neck; it’s so smooth. When we kiss, I always think of butter.  We spend our weekends at museums, galleries, and art film movie houses. We explore the shelves at the Strand for hours, buy secondhand copies of poetry books and read aloud to each other over dim sum in Chinatown.

“Will you miss me?” I say as I run my hand through his dark curls. “We’ve never been apart for more than a few days.”

Instead of answering, Julian works my jeans over my hips, stopping to lick my belly. I hold his head, wondering how I will live without his buttery tongue.

 

 

The last week of school, Julian and I cut classes and take the subway to Greenwich Village to see A Man and a Woman. When we come out of the theater, it’s raining very lightly, and we look at each other and smile. We are in our own French movie. Holding hands, we make a dash for a coffee shop where we stand under the awning and kiss deeply.

            “I’ll write you every day, “I say.

“And I’ll write back.” Julian promises. He holds me close. “Every day,” he says. “And I’ll visit you on the way up to camp. My dad said we could stop.”

“Really?” I tilt my face up for another kiss. Julian smoothes my hair, winds some stray pieces around my ears and kisses my nose. “I love you,” I say.

Julian nods, pushes his glasses up with his index finger and pulls a sealed envelope from his back pocket. He writes me poetry that makes me cry.

“Read this on the bus up to camp,” he says.

He’s the perfect boyfriend—intellectual, handsome, and Jewish. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I couldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

The buses pull off the main road and slowly move down the winding, dirt path that leads into the camp. Our trunks, which were picked up weeks ago, are waiting for us in our dorms. But we have duffel bags that we drag across the field to our assigned quarters. Nancy, Heddy, and I will share a room with three other girls. The bathrooms and showers are in the hall. There are twenty-five girls in our dorm. We settle in, introduce ourselves, and unpack as much as we can before we have to run to the dining hall for our first meeting. I miss Julian already.

The next morning, the waiters and waitresses meet with the meshgiach. He supervises the kitchen to make sure we observe the laws of kashrut. My mother keeps a kosher home, so I know the rules. Dairy and meat must be kept separate—dishes and silverware must never mingle. The meshgiach, an imposing man with a thunderous voice, tells us that he will be vigilant at all times. “Any infraction of the rules will be reported,” he says. We all rise to begin our tour of the kitchen. I’ll be working breakfast because I’ve been assigned the staff tables. The campers are not due to arrive for another two days. I’ve pulled my hair back in a regulation ponytail. I’m ready to begin work. The kitchen is steaming, but I’m wearing shorts and a tank top that is, from the sidelong glance I get from the meshgiach, possibly too tight. I kneel and slide the heavy tray, loaded with dishes, silverware and glasses, onto my shoulder and slowly rise. After I set my tables, I return for the bread, plates of cut fruit, and three pots of coffee when a whistle makes me turn my head.  The boy who whistled is on a ladder, arranging boxes in a storage area.  He is wearing skintight black jeans and a tee shirt I know is called a “wife-beater.” His black hair is styled in a way that only the tough boys in school sport—a stiff pompadour juts out from his forehead. He winks at me before I turn away. Still, his tanned, muscled arms and his heart-stopping green eyes have not escaped my notice.

Nancy and Heddy are incredulous when I tell them about the boy in the kitchen. Nancy will wait on campers’ tables, so the next two days are hers. Heddy is working the switchboard in the air-conditioned main office. I envy them both. I’m already exhausted. We’re sitting under a tree, smoking cigarettes and trying to catch the breeze.

“What did you do?” Heddy says.

“Do? “ I say. “There’s nothing to do. I gave him a dirty look.”

“I wonder if he’ll be at the staff party tonight,” Nancy says.

I don’t have an answer to that either. I’m going to wait by the phones at

 

eight o’clock for Julian to call.

 

 

By the time I arrive at the party, it’s well under way. I’m still enjoying the effects of Julian’s words. Graduation was a bore. He misses me. He loves me.

”Hello.”

It’s him, the boy from the ladder. I look around for Nancy and Heddy.

 “Frankie,” he says.

He waits for me to introduce myself, but I don’t answer. He’s even handsomer up close.

“And you?” Frankie says. “Do you have a name?”

“Sonya,” I say.

“Nice to meet you, Sonya.”

He puts out his hand for me to shake it, but I don’t. Instead, I smile and excuse myself, telling him I have to find my girlfriends. I see a flicker of something cross his eyes, but I can’t tell if he’s amused or angry. When I turn back to look at him, he’s already talking to another girl, a staff babysitter. She’s practically shoving her chest in his face. Her brassy blonde hair is teased into a bouffant that my friends and I will giggle over later. Frankie has his hand on her waist, but he looks over at me and inclines his head just enough to suggest that he’s killing time until I come to my senses.  I make that-will-never-happen-eyes at him and walk away. They belong together, I tell myself. Those two. They’re the same kind.  A shaygetz and a shiksa.

 

 

Frankie is persistent. Every day, he waits for me to enter the kitchen. He’s always in a good mood, always has something unexpected to say. 

“Hey,” he says. “You eat peanut butter?” He holds up a tin bucket of peanut butter. “We got a lot of it.”

“Only in camp,” I say. It’s so hot that the backs of my knees are damp with sweat. “My mother never buys it.”

“My mother doesn’t know what it is,” Frankie says.

“Neither does mine,” I say.

“You Italian?”

“Maybe.”

Frankie laughs as if he’s surprised that I’m funny. He looks at me in a way that makes me feel shy.

“I have to set up my station,” I say.

We sit at the same table for meals. He calls white bread “American bread,” but he is always quietly respectful during prayers. I try not to stare at the gold crucifix he wears on a short chain around his neck. I notice that he makes the waiters uncomfortable and the waitresses slightly giggly. Before long, Frankie and I are always looking for each other, exchanging smiles, sharing a few quiet moments on the back porch of the dining room, laughing, and finding an excuse to let out hands graze or our arms brush, skin-to-skin in our sleeveless tees. It’s a slow, excruciatingly delicious dance that keeps me wanting more.

Julian calls. He’ll be stopping by on Saturday, just for a few hours on his way up to Kingston. I tell him I’m excited, but I’m not. At night, in the dorm, I tell Nancy and Heddy that Julian is coming. They ply me with millions of questions; first about Julian, and then about Frankie. After awhile, I pretend to be asleep.

I don’t tell Frankie about Julian. I’m hopeful that the visit will come and go without notice. Julian arrives with a bunch of wildflowers. His father tells us to go take some time together while he waits in the dining room. I suggest a bench down by the lake. I don’t want to have to go into the dining room with Julian. I’m relieved when Mr. Klein takes my suggestion.

“Let’s go,” Julian says.

His palm feels sweaty when he grabs my hand. As soon we are out of Mr. Klein’s range of vision, Julian pulls me close and kisses me.

“Not here,” I say.  I look around. “Let’s go back to my room.”

I know all the girls will be out in the middle of the day. Julian and I run down the path towards my dorm. Moist curls cling to his forehead, and his glasses have slipped down the bridge of his nose. He looks flustered. Frankie always looks so sure of himself.  It’s cool inside my room. I point to my bed. Julian immediately pulls me down and gets on top of me, grinding himself into me.

“I missed you,” he says into my neck. His hands cup my breasts. “I don’t think I can make it through the summer without you.”

For a moment, I think he’s going to cry. He’s kneading my flesh, worrying my mouth with his, and gently parting my lips with his tongue.

“I can’t breathe,” I say, flattening my palms against his chest and pushing him. “Can you get off me for a minute?” My face is flushed. “The girls will be back soon. We’re not supposed to have boys in the dorm.”

He looks so hurt that I’m immediately sorry. Julian who knows the best cheap ethnic restaurants in the city, who shares my love of books, who plays the saxophone for me in the park, and who takes me to every play and movie with social significance. Julian, who is also Jewish, even though the son of American Jews, but still Jewish. I kiss him, and he’s happy again. But his lips feel too soft and the hands that have touched me so many times in every place suddenly feel intrusive. I watch as he draws a small heart on the wall closest to my bed and puts our initials inside: SA and JK 4 Ever. I walk him back to his father’s car. I wave until I can’t see the car anymore. Then, I run back to my room and tack a postcard from my parents that says Greetings from Amish Country right over the heart.

 

 

            After work that night Frankie asks me if I’ll wait for him while he finishes up. As the kitchen steward, he has a lot of responsibilities. I wait in the empty dining room, but from where I sit, I can still see him. I like the way he has his pack of Kool rolled up in is shirtsleeve. I like his muscled arms even better. Soon, he comes out, puts out his hand and asks me if I’d like to go for a walk. In answer, I take his hand. It’s almost dark, but I’m not afraid. I’m never afraid when I’m with him. Not of anything.

            Hand-in-hand we walk the periphery of the campgrounds. His palm is slightly callused, but his skin is cool. We talk easily and about everything. I relax against his arm as we walk. It’s Friday night, and I’m missing the Sabbath service. I hear the familiar strains of song and prayer from the makeshift synagogue down near the lake. Lechah dodi, likrat kalah penei shabat nekabelah… Frankie squeezes my hand.

            “You understand that stuff?” he says.

            “It’s a song to welcome the Sabbath,” I say. “The Sabbath is like a bride, and she’s greeted like a lover.”

            His ears immediately perk up at the word “lover,” and I blush.

            “My mother lights the Sabbath candles every Friday night,” I say. “We have chicken soup, and roast chicken and challah—“

            Challah?” he says.

            “That soft bread you seem to like.”

            “Easter bread.” He stops and turns me toward him, pulling me against his lean body. “Tell me about the lover part again.”

            I’m prepared for his kiss, but first he places his hand around my throat, lightly, but with conviction. He brushes his lips against mine even as I open my mouth, ready to welcome him. His tongue is not questioning the way Julian’s always seems to be. Frankie’s tongue is insistent, purposeful. My arms hang loosely at me sides until he takes them and wraps them around his waist.

            “Better,” he says and then kisses me again.

            Hitna’ari me’afar kumi lib’shi big’dei tif’artech ami al yad ben Yishai beit halach’mi kar’vah el nafshi ge’a lah… Lechah dodi…. Get up from the ash and shake it off yourself…wear your glorious cloths, my nation next to King David…my soul will be saved… Come my lover.

            I haven’t told Frankie about the ashes that identify my family history. The Holocaust is another history lesson for him, something remote and impersonal. I’m certain he barely knows any Jews in his hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey.  If he does, they never inhabit the same space.

            I do not object when his hands outline my body with an urgency that leaves me breathless. And when he asks me if I’d like to go back to his room under the dining room, I say yes. I close my eyes against the image of the piles of ashes that seem to call out to me. My soul is already in trouble.

 

 

            We are in love. Our days are shaped by when we can be alone. I wake up an hour earlier every morning, so I can go with him to the on-site bakery where he picks up the daily delivery of rolls and breads. I wait in the car, and he brings me a warm roll. We spend every moment we’re not working together. Sometimes in the morning or after work, he drags me around the track.  He teases me that I’m too broad in some places though he hands never seem to object to my body’s fullness. There is not an ounce of fat on him anywhere. Even the line of his jaw is hard, angular. Sometimes when he kisses me, I feel its sharpness with a small thrill. Everything about him excites me, even our endless quarrels. I know he’s unused to a girl like me.

He tells me that I’m impossible, that I’m too eager to invite controversy. One night when he discovers that I’ve decided to go skinny-dipping in the lake against his fervent pleas not to, he comes to rescue me from eyes that are not his. Wrapping a towel around me, he lifts my wet hair up and begins to rub me dry.

“How could someone who looks like such an angel be such a pain in the ass?”  he says.

I’m silent, shivering, and grateful to be saved from my impulsiveness though I would never admit this, not to anyone.

“Still cold?” he says.

I nod, suddenly shy. He senses this and wraps the towel tighter around me, pulls me close.

“How come you never listen?” he says. “I just want to take care of you.”

I think how easy it would be to yield to his wishes, to be compliant, but I can’t. I have to obey my parents, my traditions, and my responsibilities. Nowhere does it say that I have to listen to a boy. I know he’s used to girls who listen. I saw the shiksa babysitter with him that night. She was a listener. I saw how she hung on every word he said. I know she thought Frankie would be hers for the summer. She’s a Jersey girl. The girls from Frankie’s hometown have eyes thick with mascara and paint their lips whatever color is the fashion of the moment. I smear a dab of Vaseline on my lips to make them shine. I wonder why Frankie chose me over her. My idea of dressing up is a Mexican peasant blouse and clean jeans. I don’t own a pair of heels. And I’m too outspoken, too nervy for a boy like him. He says I read too much; I say he doesn’t read at all.  But, still, we find it hard to be apart for very long.

Frankie releases his hold on me and picks up my clothes.  I take them and dart t behind a tree, pulling on my underwear and then my shorts and tee shirt even though I’m still wet.

“No shoes?” he says.

When I shake my head, he offers to carry me back. I laugh, but I know he would do it.  I want to tell him that the babysitter shoots darts at me with her eyes whenever our paths cross. I want to see his jaw tighten and the flame in his eyes at the thought that anyone might harm me. But I don’t tell him because I don’t have to.

“Let’s go,” I say.

“Bossy, too,” he says.

I know he isn’t mad, I don’t think he’s ever been really mad at me.

We have the luxury of privacy that none of our peers can enjoy. His room is a sanctuary, and we spend hours there, often arguing because I won’t surrender my virginity to him. He finds this especially hard to understand because it’s so evident that I want to. I know he thinks it’s because he isn’t Jewish, but that isn’t the reason. I’m just not ready.

Still, I love nothing more than to stretch out alongside him and run my hands along his strong, hairless forearms while we talk about everything. He calls me “my girl,” and whispers “Baby” into my hair. I let him kiss my neck for too long even though I anticipate the consequences. But somewhere inside myself I sense that he is marking me, making me his the only way he can. I let him because I already know that we will never be possible. Everything about him is foreign to me except the ease with which I love him.

 

 

I know we are being watched. Wherever I turn, there are critical eyes, expressions full of judgment. The hardest part of that for me is that I understand. After all, Frankie is a shaygetz. Jewish girls know those boys are nothing but trouble. We know to stay away from them. They only want one thing. But my shaygetz is different. He’s by my side each time I have to lift a heavy tray, taking it from my hands, sliding it onto his shoulder. And he’s sweet. One morning when I stumble up to the dining room after spending another night in his bed arguing about my virginity, I find that he has spelled out “I love you” with the silverware. When I catch his eye in the kitchen, he winks at me, and I wink back. He laughs, shakes his head and carries on with his work. But he is ever watchful, always ready to defend me from anything and anyone. And even though I tell him that he’s too protective of me, I secretly love that because of him most of the waiters give me wide berth. They think he’s dangerous and unpredictable, but only I know the boy who begs me to sleep with him out in the field and instinctively covers my body with his when the temperature falls, making sure throughout the night that I am warm enough. But he’s still a shaygetz, and it’s still a Jewish camp where girls like me are supposed to stay away from boys like him. But I can’t, and I won’t.

For that reason, I’m not surprised when I’m summoned to the office for “a talk” with the director, Rabbi Feinstein. I have a huge hickey on my neck. It’s been too hot to try to cover it, and besides, all the waitresses have hickeys. The difference is theirs are from Jewish boys.

Frankie is distraught. He wants to come in with me.

“Wait here,” I tell him. We’re sitting on a bench down near the lake. “I’ll be fine.”

“No,” he says. “I’m going to walk you there. I’ll wait outside the office.”

We hold hands as we walk up the hill.  Frankie looks worried.

“What if they send you home?” he says.

“They won’t. If they send me home, they’ll have to send everyone home.”

He laughs, but I know he’s worried. “Go get’ em,’ he says. He kisses my eyelids, rubs my cheek with the back of his hand. “I’ll be waiting.”

A small air-conditioner sputters in the rabbi’s office. The door is half-open. I’m surprised to see Rabbi Mike, the rabbi who conducts the Jewish education and religion classes the wait staff is required to attend. But I am even more surprised to see Leah, the camp nurse. I knock lightly.

“Come in, Sonja,” Rabbi Feinstein says. “Sit, sit.”

Rabbi Mike smiles benevolently between puffs on his pipe, and Leah smiles almost apologetically at me. I suddenly wish I had let Frankie come with me.

“Well, I guess you know why you’ve been asked to come here today,” Rabbi Feinstein says.

I decide I don’t want to make it easy for them.

“”No,” I say. “I have no idea.”

Rabbi Mike clears his throat and exchanges a look with Leah.

“No idea?” Rabbi Feinstein says. He points to my neck.  “For starters, Sonja, there are children here as young as eight.”

I don’t say anything.

“You’re supposed to set an example for them,” he says. “What are they to think when they see that mark on your neck?”

“Is it just the mark on my neck, Rabbi?” I say. “Because all the girls in my dorm have hickeys, some in places you can’t even see.” I look around. “I don’t see any of them here.”

The room is quiet. The air-conditioner gasps and pops; it’s too small for a room this size.

“But we asked you here, Sonja.”

“Because of Frankie.”

“Frankie?” Rabbi Feinstein says.
            I realize that he doesn’t even know Frankie’s name.

“My boyfriend,” I say.

The word “boyfriend” hangs in the air like a dare.

Leah leans forward in her chair and in a low voice says, “Do we need to call your mother?”

“Why would you call my mother?”
            “We don’t want any trouble,” Leah says. “You know what I mean.”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m not sleeping with Frankie. And if you want to call anyone’s mother you should call Renee’s mother, and Sandy’s mother, and Helene’s mother. For that matter, you should also call Barry’s, Jonathan’s, and Eli’s mothers. They’re all having sex. All those nice Jewish kids.”

“Like should stick with like,” Rabbi Feinstein says.

I don’t want to cry in front of them.

“At least try to be more discreet,” Rabbi Mike urges in a gentle voice.

“Can I go now?” I say.

“We just want to protect you,” Rabbi Feinstein says.

I have to shade my eyes from the sun when I step outside. Frankie is sitting where I left him. He stands as soon as soon as he sees me. I walk toward him, wrap my arms around him, and bury my face in his chest. My tears wet his shirt, but he holds me tight and doesn’t let go.

“It’s okay,” he says.

“It’s not okay,” I say.

“It doesn’t matter what anyone says.”

“Of course it matters.”

“No,” he says. “The only thing that matters is us.”

I nod against his chest, but I know he’s wrong.

 

My father comes up for a visit.  My mother is in Israel visiting with my brother. The summer is halfway over, and I don’t want it to ever end. My father looked uncared for. He is lost without my mother. I immediately feel guilty that I’m not home to take care of him, but he insists he’s fine. I get the afternoon off, and we go into town for lunch. He shows me the last letter from my mother, and I promise to write her that evening. I explain that work keeps me very busy, but I agree it’s not a good enough excuse.

“And I have a new boyfriend,” I say.

“A new boyfriend?” my father says. “What happened to Julian?”

“Julian?” I say as if I’ve never heard his name before.

“Yes, you must remember him. The boy you’ve been dating for almost two years.”

“I remember him, but I still want to introduce you to Frankie when we get back to camp.”

“Sure.”

On the way back, we’re both quiet. I have to work the dinner shift, and it’s almost time for me to set up my tables. My father waits outside the dining hall while I go in to get Frankie. I see that he’s already set my tables. I call out to him from across the dining room. He’s unloading a dolly. A cigarette is behind his ear. He’s wearing his usual tee shirt. His arms glisten with sweat. I have the urge to tell him we should just go, run down to his room and hide from everyone. At the sound of my voice, he looks up, smiles, and beckons me closer.

“My dad’s outside,” I say. “He has to leave soon. I’d like you to meet him.”

            Frankie kisses me on the cheek. I inhale his scent; my pulse quickens.

            “Thanks for setting my tables,” I say.

            “Anything for you,” he says. “Give me ten minutes. Let me unload these boxes and get a shirt.”

            I find my father reading the Daily News. There’s a slight breeze.

            “Come,” he says. “Let’s walk a little.”

            We walk down the path from the dining room. I link my arm through his. Before were halfway down the path, I hear Frankie call my name. As I turn, I catch my father’s expression as he takes in his first look at Frankie. Something like surprise, but more, crosses my father’s face. Frankie is walking toward us, buttoning his shirt. It’s short-sleeved, so it’s impossible to miss his muscled arms. It’s also impossible to miss his gold crucifix, especially as the sun catches the thorn of crowns on Jesus’ head, making it glow in the bright light. My father looks and then looks quickly away as if he has seen an accident.

            “Dad,” I say. “This is Frankie. And Frankie, this is my dad.”

            They shake hands. An awkward silence follows.

            “Frankie is from New Jersey,” I say.

            “Is that so?” my father says.

            Frankie shifts from foot to foot. He places a flat palm on either side of his head and pushes his hair back. Because I know Frankie, I know it’s a nervous gesture, but it makes him look tough, nothing at all like the boy I know. I want to tell my father how hardworking and smart Frankie is. I want to show my father that Frankie is curious and fair-minded with the sort of decency that I know they share. And I want to reassure him that Frankie is the sort of boy he could trust to take care of his daughter.  But instead, I say nothing.

            “Well,” Frankie says. “I’d better get back to the kitchen.” He puts out his hand again, and my father takes it, unhesitatingly, but without his usual warmth. “It was nice to meet you Mr. Applebaum.”

            “Likewise,” my father says.

            I see how he sizes Frankie up as he walks away.

            “He’s a nice boy,” I say.

            “I’m sure he is,” my father says.

            I walk him to the car, promise again to write my mother, and promise to be smart—being “smart” means so many things, but mostly it means, don’t do anything stupid.

            “Did you like him?” I say. “Did you like Frankie?”

            “I met him for ten minutes, Sonja. Not even. What do you want me to say?”

            I don’t answer even though I know what I want him to say. But I also know that what I want just isn’t possible. I want him to say that it doesn’t matter that Frankie isn’t Jewish, or that we come from two such different worlds that we would have never found each other in the places we lived.  I know there is something important about the fact that we found each other at this place, at this point in time, and I want my father to see it too. I want him to tell me that nothing matters more than love. And I want him to free me from my history. The worst part is that I understand why he doesn’t, why instead he says, “And leave this boy out of it when you write to your mother. No reason to worry her.” He kisses my cheek. “Besides, Sonya, it will be over in a few weeks.”

            I nod. I don’t know what hurts more—the fact that he calls Frankie “this boy,” or that he says it will all be over in a few weeks. I want to shout at my father that “this boy” has a name. I want to tell him that it will never be over, but I know better than to speak that way to my father, so instead, I say nothing.

 

 

One night, just days before the summer ends, Frankie tells me that I have to learn to live in the present. It’s a conversation we have had all summer and to which we return again and again.

            “Our love is all that matters now,” he says. “Why can’t you believe that?”

I want to believe him. I want to be able to live in the moment the way he does, but I know I never will. I can’t. Just like I could never marry a boy like Frankie. I could never marry a shaygetz. But I could love him forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Frankie

Gorgeous writing! Your details are so evocative. I loved reading your story!!!