2018 Breakwater Fiction Contest winner
On the hot, bumpy ride from school to the Santa Monica beach, Alison and Susan sit together, jostling each other, Alison’s bare arm brushing the sleeve of Susan’s shirt. But Susan isn’t talking to Alison. She’s arguing with Tzipporah, across the aisle, about whether a giraffe is kosher. Tzipporah says if they knew where on the neck to slaughter it, they could eat it. Susan says you might as well consider it not kosher since you can’t eat it anyway.
“Ew,” Alison shudders, and they look at her sharply. Alison knows she should shut up, but she can’t. “That’s gross.”
“Don’t be a jerk,” Susan says, elbowing Alison. “We’re not going to do it.”
Lisa, in the row ahead, says, “Do what?”
“Eat giraffe. Because it’s not kosher,” Susan says.
“But it is kosher,” Tzipporah insists. “There’s just this neck problem—”
“I’d like to have a necking problem,” Lisa giggles.
Alison looks out the window as they pass a church, a gas station, then Kentucky Fried Chicken, possibly less kosher but far more appealing than a giraffe. Susan doesn’t notice any of this; she’s turned her back on the window, on Alison. How can Susan have this discussion? It isn’t a real debate, it’s a room with no doors that you could stay in forever. Eighth grade is composed of a million not-real conversations like this one.
The bus smells like hot metal and plastic, even with the wind blowing through, and Alison’s thighs are sweat-stuck together under her jean skirt. This trip to the beach is a mean tease. No one has a towel or a radio or Johnson’s baby oil or a lemon; the twenty-two girls from Ezra Hebrew Academy are not going to streak their hair at the beach or lay out. Alison wears cap sleeves so the sun can do its magic on her arms, but that’s the most she can hope for. The girls will stay fully clothed, neck to toe, while the surf crashes in front of them, so they can say the tashlich prayer and get a jump-start on throwing their sins into the water, a ritual they’re technically supposed to do next week, on Rosh Hashanah. But the girls in Alison’s class, who live near Fairfax or in Hancock Park or Beverly Hills, won’t go to the beach next week. Their families don’t drive on the holiday. Alison doubts they will get anywhere near water to say the prayer again, unless the girls who have pools do it in their backyards, standing next to the diving board or the spiral slide. Would that count? And would you want to swim in your sins?
On Rosh Hashanah, Alison’s parents will make her and her little brother Danny dress up for temple, but her parents won’t be looking to say extra prayers in the afternoon, happy to wait until Yom Kippur for their booster shot. High Holiday services are already too long; they will spend hours in the sanctuary, on velvet seats that open with a groan. On stage, the rabbi wears a satin gown the same seafoam blue as the chairs. From the ceiling, the glittering eternal light dangles like a bug zapper over a picnic table, only this table is spread with velvet and silver—the Torah’s clothes. When services finally end, her parents will drive home and spend the rest of the day figuring out what to do next because they can’t make themselves get down to serious reflecting and repenting, but they won’t let themselves cut loose and do what they really want, which is to watch the news and read the latest Harold Robbins.
Walking down the aisle of the bus, Rabbi Teitelbaum passes out a mimeographed sheet, the special prayer that accompanies the sin-throwing. Tall and pot-bellied, the Rabbi goes hatless on the bus. Why should his fine hair mold to his scalp like a baby’s while his Jewfro beard is coarse and springy? It’s a man-mystery.
Alison stares at him: black hair, white skin, black suit, white shirt, Rabbi Two-toned. His eyes, though, watching the girls as they chatter, are a blue-gray, small and distant behind thick glasses.
Rabbi Teitelbaum is the kind of rabbi who doesn’t care what you think or how you feel, only what you do. Your favorite book? Your favorite Beatle? Not important. You could hate God or not believe in God; as long as you pray three times a day, and say blessings before and after eating foods with the OU kosher seal, you’re fine. You bring sugar-free candies to the seniors in the nursing home, and sing about Jerusalem of Gold, and you’re golden. Their teacher last year, Rabbi Kandelman, wasn’t like that. He cared about what you felt when you prayed or did some other good deed. With Teitelbaum, you just do the mitzvah. That’s what counts.
“Why do you have to say tashlich at the water?” Alison asks the Rabbi as he passes the paper to her.
“Read it,” he says. “You’ll see why.”
“It says the sins go into the sea. But do you really think the water takes the sins away?”
The Rabbi looks at her over the top of his glasses. “When we’re done, you tell me. Does the water take away the sins?” He says no more. His tongue darts from his mouth to wet the tip of his index finger, then he separates the next page from the stack and continues down the aisle.
When he is finished handing out the prayer, the Rabbi stands at the front of the bus, turning slightly sideways to see out the window while still keeping an eye on the girls. He blocks the middle of the windshield at that shimmering moment when Pico Boulevard rises and the Pacific comes suddenly into view, a wide shiny ribbon, flat and silver, bisected by Teitelbaum’s belly. Always at this point on the drive to the beach, a trip she has taken countless times with her family, Alison imagines diving into the sea. Then the bus tips forward and the rotten salty smell rushes up her nose as Pico descends. She loves that whiff of half-decay, seagull-picked trash, tar and faraway islands, the smell of nearly there. The ocean T’s the street, the cap on everything, the end of cars, the end of driving and the end of wishing she could drive, the end of waiting, the end of wind-blown palm trees like girls with one-side ponytails, the end of L.A.
“Half an hour, girls,” says the Rabbi as they file off the bus, “and then we go back.”
So they traipse across the sandy expanse that looks smooth from the parking lot but really the flatness is made up of little hills and valleys, the sun-yellow sides and the shadows. There is not a single smooth surface here unless you make one, which Alison does, trailing one leg behind her to create a flat track.
“What are you doing?” Susan squints at Alison. “You look like a dork.”
Alison switches tactics. She stomps the sand with her Adidas. She doesn’t care if sand flies up on Susan’s legs, or hits Tzipporah. Not that either of them would notice sand on their covered-up legs. When Susan got religious over the summer, all the boundaries got redrawn. The hems of Susan’s skirts dropped at least four inches below her knees, almost as long as the ankle-length skirts Tzipporah wears, and she got rid of her short-sleeved shirts, too; on a really hot day, Susan wears three-quarter length sleeves, which exposes about two wrist watches’ worth of her smooth, olive skin, but No More Than That.
Alison hates wearing shoes at the beach even more than she hates wearing a skirt. She misses the sand-massage of a thousand grains resisting, then giving way under her bare feet. And going into the water! It’s so hot, Alison is sweating between her toes.
In clusters of three and four, with their hair swirling in their faces and skirts ballooning, lopsided, to the south, the girls look nomadic. Like ancient Israelites, Alison thinks, dragging themselves across the shitty desert on the way to the holy land, but that’s a different holiday.
His face bright red, with a line of sweat running down his cheek, Rabbi Teitelbaum turns to urge the girls along. Then he resumes his pace, head down against the wind, one hand shielding his glasses against the brilliance and the other holding his hat. The sand won’t let him hurry though, sucking his black-soled shoes into gullies at every step.
The surf gets louder. They pass a woman wearing a batik sarong around her hips and a matching batik bikini top, her tan belly in between, a grass mat tucked under her arm. Alison recognizes the mat; her mom has one too. She took it with her, and a suitcase, when she left home to stay with one of her sorority sisters in Redondo Beach. She’d gone in March, so Alison thought maybe her parents had gotten into a fight about cleaning for Passover, about the shelf-covering and dish-switching procedures her mom hated. But they had that argument every spring, so this fight must have been about something worse. During the three months her mom was away, Alison spent a lot of time at Susan’s house. But once a week her mom picked her up from school.
“How are you, sweetie?” she would ask when Alison got in the car. There was a new, relaxed quality to her mom. She moved with a loose-limbed grace, a distant smile on her face that would brighten to precision when her glance fell on Alison, as if she’d just remembered that she had a daughter. Driving, she’d stretch her right arm into the space between the bucket front seats, and it seemed her arm had gotten longer, more carefree, as her fingertips slid over Alison’s knee. “My precious girl,” she said. “Let’s go to Marie Callendar’s.” They ate Chocolate Satin pie, and then her mom dropped her off at home.
When her mom moved back in, she put the mat away, or perhaps she threw it out. Alison hadn’t seen it again. Now the woman on the beach is waving the rolled up grass mat, and a surfer is coming across the sand to greet her. The woman laughs at something he says, tilting her head so her long hair swings across her breasts.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” Susan says, elbowing Alison in the ribs. “You’re giving me a flat.” Susan pulls up her sandal strap.
“Why did we even come here?” Alison whines. “Why do we have to say tashlich at the beach?”
“What do you mean?” Susan says. “Where are we supposed to say it?”
Alison is quiet for a second. “Do you really think the water will take away your sins?”
“Well,” Susan says. “Why not?”
This isn’t the answer Alison expected, less dogmatic and more like the old Susan who seemed to follow religious rules on a whim, even when she observed all of them. Why not?
Almost at the waterline, the Rabbi shoos a seagull away, and that’s where they stop. The girls stand in a row roughly parallel to the ocean. They take prayer books from their bags, and the mimeographed sheet with the prayer on it. Mi El kamocha, the Rabbi chants, and all the girls, on cue, echo him. Who is a G-d like You? You forgive sins and overlook transgressions. Alison cradles the prayer book in her arms, with the extra page of purple words tucked between the book and her body. He does not retain His anger forever, for He desires kindness.
The wind puffs Alison’s skirt, then smacks it against her thighs. Down the line of girls the skirts flap, a distraction, all that luffing denim. Two seagulls caw over a bag of Doritos, drowning out the prayer. Lumps of sand shift inside Alison’s sneakers. She lifts her prayerbook to her forehead, using it as a visor to deflect the afternoon sun. Angled up like that, the prayers can’t be read, but Alison has stopped chanting. Her words feel unnecessary, empty, compared to Susan’s. Susan talks to G-d. Her body sways. She prays the words like a rock song she wants to memorize, the way they sang American Pie in seventh grade. Alison had taped it off the radio, and they passed the cassette back and forth till they knew every word.
Now the wind passes Susan’s prayer to Alison. You will cast into the depths of the sea all their sins; You will show kindness to Yaakov and mercy to Avraham.
Susan is better than a boy, or at least she used to be. On Saturday nights last year, they went out for fried onion pizza and told jokes no boy would ever get, blowing bad breath on each other. When Susan said it was late and she had to go home, Alison replied in a throaty, fake-Russian accent, like Baryshnikov in The Turning Point, that she had to stay out “zhe whole night.” Susan laughed so hard she snorted Tab out her nose.
But now they are at the beach, at the part of the prayer where, if it were Rosh Hashanah, they would throw bread into the water. They didn’t bring bread, Rabbi Teitelbaum says, because that would be wasteful. Alison would never waste a bite of the round challah her grandmother buys for Rosh Hashanah, coiled high and shiny as a beehive hairdo, studded with burnt raisins that have bitter black skins, ashy on the tongue until you bit into the caramelized grape-goo inside, and it melted into the eggy blanket of dough. How could anyone throw that in the water?
“This is crazy,” Alison says, but Susan doesn’t answer. Eyes shut, Susan is all devotion, praying in a breathy whisper, as if she’s not standing in the blazing sun fully clothed but has the starring role in a sexy movie where the lights dim and the dialogue gets hard to hear. A sexy movie with G-d.
Alison kicks her sneaker toe into the sand, again and again, sending out wet clumps. After a minute, she unlaces her shoes, takes off her socks. Taps Susan’s shoulder.
“What’s the matter now?”
“He’s not looking,” Alison points at Rabbi Teitelbaum. “Let’s go to the water. C’mon, quick!” She grabs Susan’s arm, but Susan won’t budge.
“You’re being a total jerk,” Susan hisses. “Let go of me!”
Susan moves to the other side of Tzipporah, and a chill goes up Alison’s spine even in the heat. She does not want to see Tzipporah’s face, with her special brand of kosher smug.
Staring at the ocean, at the gold threads of sun twisting across the water, not praying a word, Alison wishes like hell she could toss away parts of herself. The part of her that wants to have the old Susan back, but never says the right thing. The part of her that is so awkward any time there’s a boy nearby. The part of her that’s mean to her brother.
And the parts of herself she is supposed to get rid of but doesn’t want to. The parts that touched Rabbi Kandelman last year, and were touched by him, because it was both, she’s sure. Her body moving toward his, hidden behind the door to the supply cupboard. His hand moving at the same time.
She’d offered to help him clean up after class ended on the last day of school. Instead of going shopping in Century City with Lisa and Ruthie, Alison got the paper towels wet in the girls’ bathroom and wiped down the blackboard. At 5’7” Alison was the tallest girl in the school, and she reached the top easily. She began cleaning in the right-hand corner where Rabbi K always wrote the acronym for With G-d’s Help, which she felt odd erasing, a superstitious reluctance to clear the tracings of that tiny abbreviated prayer that prefaced his teaching. And how exactly did G-d help? Help the chalk not break, his nails not to scrape, the teaching itself not to escape. Rabbi K wrote less on the board than other teachers. Mostly he talked, and Alison felt the electricity when something he said made a leap like a spark jumping from the live wire of his mind into hers. “Hashem is not male or female,” he had told the class. “Hashem is the union of masculine and feminine, the echod, the one.” He’d clasped his hands together with a single, loud smack and kept them that way, gripped so tightly Alison could see his knuckles going white.
Alison finished cleaning the chalkboard. “What’s next?” she asked.
Rabbi K pointed at the twenty-two volumes of Deuteronomy piled on a desk at the back of the room and asked her to put them in the closet. After the first few were stored safely on the shelf, Alison turned too abruptly, sending a stack of books to the floor. Some splayed open, their white insides showing, their lines of print revealed. Squatting, Alison began to retrieve them, and when she stood Rabbi K was beside her, picking up books and kissing each one. Alison looked at those she’d already replaced on the desk, unkissed. Should she kiss them now? She considered pressing her mouth to the smooth binding, inhaling the musty smell, her lips flattened in belated apology. Please G-d, don’t be mad at me.
Rabbi K stood close to her. Just as Alison moved toward the closet, Rabbi K reached for the books on the desk, and his hand passed over her arm, skimmed it. Alison hadn’t known in advance that she wanted him to touch her but the minute it happened—outside her mind, in the truth of her body—she realized the idea had been inside her all along. The skin touched by Rabbi K was new and tingling, turned to velvet, and she felt the path his fingers made even after they were gone.
They stayed like that, not moving, close together, until Rabbi K reached for his yarmulke, which had slipped to the left, and replaced it on the center of his head. Then he walked back to his desk. “Go home, Alison,” he said.
Now, standing on the beach to say tashlich, the arm that Rabbi K brushed is still alive, marked, a kind of treasure. To cast it in the water, she’d have to drown.
Alison watches the dozen or so surfers, their slick black torsos bobbing in the waves. There’s a break. A white plume unfurls across the water, and one of the surfers flattens out, a smudge, paddling toward shore. He stands and the sun licks him from behind, magnifying his dark shoulders and defining his hips as he carves a line down the wave. Alison can almost hear the roll and roar of his one wave.
She imagines the surfer’s toes gripping his board. She wants to ride. When the surfer propels forward with slight pelvic shifts, she sways in response. She digs her toes deeply into the sand. No one knows that Alison is sand-surfing, not the other girls, not Rabbi Teitelbaum standing several feet in front so he can pray without seeing them. Her friends will think it’s a sudden feeling for the prayer, her fervor rocking in her hips: G-d take away my sins! You, ocean there, take my sins! Take them to Marquesas, Tahiti, Mindanao.
But Alison has no sins she wants to throw away, only sins she hasn’t had a chance at yet.
The surfer splashes up a few feet away, shaking his head out like a dog so the seawater whips off his hair, which is straw yellow even when it’s wet. He holds his board under his arm and walks up the beach.
The Rabbi calls out the opening line of a psalm. From the depths I called Yah; with abounding relief answered Yah. While the other girls chant, Alison takes a tiny step back. No one stops her, so she creeps along behind the row of praying girls, past Tzipporah and Susan, past Lisa and Devorah and Sarah and Ruthie, all praying: Adonai is with me, I do not fear. What can man do to me?
Alison stays completely still for a minute, listening to the psalm. What she’s doing makes her feel breathless and foamy inside. For a moment she is the last yeshiva girl in line; on the peninsula of prayer, she is the tip. Then she breaks off.
She walks to the surfer. The sand burns her feet, and she walks faster, doesn’t stop till she’s standing next to him. Crouched over the board, he works a sheet of sandpaper around the edge.
“Hey,” she says. “I saw you surfing.”
He glances at her. “No way,” he says, and resumes sanding. His face is a dark red, his nose hard and shiny where the skin has burned and peeled and burned too many times. His lips are zinc white.
“D’you ever teach surfing?”
“Hard to surf in a skirt,” he says. “Hard to do much of anything.”
“Easier than you think,” she says. “You’ll see.”
He looks up for real this time, squinting at her, and she knows she’s said the right thing. “I will?” he says.
But Alison doesn’t know what to say next. The surfer shakes his head. Then he looks down and finds a new spot on his board to sand.
Alison stares at the top of his stringy blonde hair. She remembers, one time in the pie shop, her mom talking to a waiter with bleached-out hair and sunburned cheeks that made his eyes seem to glow blue. “What kind of pie can I get for you, ladies?” he asked, his thighs pressed against the edge of their table. Her mom had shut the menu and when the waiter reached to take it, she put her hand on top of his and said, “What do you like?” She tilted her head, right ear practically on her shoulder as she gazed at him. “Your favorite—that’s what I want.”
Alison never stopped watching her mom’s face across the booth—her pretty smile, her long eyelashes. Alison could sense the pressure of her mom’s smooth fingertips against the man’s hands. She could sense the movement inside the waiter, a recalibration under his uniform as he shifted from taking the order to some other kind of exchange that would not get written down on his pad. Her mother extracted the pen from the waiter’s hand and waited for his reply, as if she were taking his order.
“Lemon meringue,” he said. “That’s the best.”
He reached for his pen. Her mom held it in the air, floating, ten seconds of stillness until the man’s hand connected with hers, and she let him take the pen.
Alison squats beside the surfer. “I’ll sand the board for you,” she offers, clumsily touching his arm.
“You still here? Shit,” he says and stands.
Alison feels a surge, the last bit of adrenaline. She straightens up too.
“How old are you, like twelve?”
“I’m just as old as you,” she says, cheeks blazing.
“Seventeen,” she lies. “Old enough, anyway.”
“Ok, 17,” he says. He’s got the board under his arm, aimed at the water. “That guy’s looking for you,” he says, tipping his head.
Alison turns. Rabbi Teitelbaum is marching toward her, sand spilling off the tops of his shiny black dress shoes with every angry step.
“For tomorrow,” the Rabbi says, in a controlled snarl that flips Alison’s stomach, “one thousand words on tashlich. On my desk at 8:00 a.m., and not one minute later. To be delivered in the company of your parents, who can expect a call from me this evening. Now get back to the bus!” He sweeps his arm up, index finger pointing east as if it were the hand of time itself, as if he could order her back to the Bronx, back to Poland, back to where her great-grandmothers said tashlich.
Alison waits for the Rabbi to turn, but he doesn’t move. He won’t leave until she begins to head back to the parking lot, a one-man divider between her and the future. The fear in Alison’s stomach calcifies into a brittle anger.
Behind the Rabbi, the girls are staring at her. Tzipporah’s hands are on her hips, and Susan—where is Susan? For a second their eyes meet, but Susan looks down, digs a hole with her toe. Suddenly, the girls start walking to the bus. The Rabbi hasn’t said it’s time for them all to go, but they know.
Only Lisa still watches Alison, mouths something, her eyebrows lifting halfway up her forehead. He’s cute.
Lisa turns then, following the others, and Alison starts walking too, but backwards, scanning the ocean. She picks up her shoes but doesn’t stop to put them on. The sand is still burning hot, but the burning is better than shoes. Swaying as she walks, with her arms out to the sides, Alison prays: Please let me find him again. Not just with her mind, but with words leaving her lips like a moan, Let me find him. Blinding sun-diamonds bounce off the waves. Alison strains to see the surfer but it’s too late, he’s lost in the dazzle.
"A lot is going on beneath the surface of this clean, well-paced story about a group of girls taken to the beach by a rabbi to prepare for a religious ritual. There's a cool, almost zoological, narrative eye watching as one rogue member detaches herself from the herd; there's humor; and there's a kind of doubled sense of perspective – we see what the character sees, and beyond to what she doesn't see."
Felicia Berliner is a writer in NYC. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Little Star Journal, Salon, Lilith Magazine, and other publications.