THE TRAGIC EVENTS AT TEMPLE ISRAEL SET THE STAGE FOR MY OWN INEVITABLE DOOM
"Today, I am a man."
Right then I knew that something was seriously wrong--I mean seriously wrong--with Eric Weinberg. Everyone in the audience knew. You couldn't miss it.
It wasn't just the anxious, weebly quaver of his voice, the nasal soprano of which didn't do much to support Eric's assertion of manhood. His skinny face, which was pale and pasty even in midsummer, had suddenly gone several notches whiter--beyond white, really, achieving a sort of ghostly translucence, and all the way from the seventh row of Temple Israel I could see the greasy sheen of sweat on his beaky nose and the trembling of his birdlike hands.
Even Rabbi Abramovitz--a man who must have witnessed the very worst of tragic bar and bat mitzvah flameouts--looked concerned. This was more than a standard attack of the jitters.
The rabbi had a famously rebellious left eyeball that tended to move and blink independently of the right one, which explains how an otherwise nice man can end up with a nickname like the Lizard. Now, though, his rebel eye was taking a break from its standard
Pong-like wanderings to cooperate with its rival. Both pupils were riveted on Eric, who had started to sway gently behind the podium. "Oh, shit!" muttered my older brother, Josh, next to me. Then he grunted, probably from an elbow in the ribs from our mom.
I glanced at Josh. His muscly jaw was clenched, lips pressed together. He was trying not tolaugh. This was funny to him. My friend Eric--well, maybe not friend, but at the least, ally of convenience in a hostile universe--was going to pieces up there, and Josh was staring at the back of the pew in front of us, eyes bugging out as he tried to maintain his composure.
On the stage, Eric was doing his best to continue, his reedy little voice coming from what seemed like very far away. I couldn't even look at him. He was giving off palpable waves of intensely contagious Panic, and my Panic immune system is extremely weak. My own skin was clammy. I pinched my thigh, hard, to distract myself from the terror bubbling and churning inside me.
I leaned forward to see past Josh's bulk, vainly hoping for some reassuring guidance from my parents. My mom didn't notice me. Her attention was focused on the disaster unfolding on the stage. She was employing one of her superpowers, the Smile: a fixed expression as placid and pleasant and unperturbed as a mirrored pond, capable of hiding even the most monstrous emotions.
Next to her was my nine-year-old-sister, Lisa. She had yet to master the mysteries of the Smile and was staring at the stage with undisguised eyes-wide, mouth-open horror.
Just past her, our dad was shaking his head subtly. He sighed--something I saw rather than heard, because by now my ears were filled with a dull roar. I'd seen our dad make the same gesture of weary resignation once before: when we'd all gone out to his favorite fancy restaurant for his birthday, and a fat businessman collapsed at a nearby table and my dad the doctor knew he had to abandon his perfect steak to go treat him.
I didn't want to look, but some irresistible force drew my eyes back to the stage. Rabbi Abramovitz had somehow managed to shepherd Eric to the Torah-reading portion of the ceremony and was holding the pointer for him, indicating lines on the scroll.
But Eric wasn't reading. He wasn't even looking at the Torah. He was standing there silently, his sunken zombie eyes fixed on something visible only to him, located somewhere behind and above all our heads.
"Baruch . . ." suggested the rabbi, gently prompting him. Nothing. It was a horrible silent moment--sheer endless vacuum. No one even breathed. I wanted to scream or run or stab myself or do anything to end the pain, and I was furious at Eric for making me feel this way. Next to me, Josh was shaking with trapped mirth.
"Baruch ata . . ." Rabbi Abramovitz prompted again.
Eric's mouth stayed shut. From somewhere deep inside him came a sound like a sped-up foghorn played in reverse.
Josh was bent double, both hands clapped over his mouth.
"Baruch ata adonai," said the rabbi.
"Blaarrrgh!" Eric responded, and spouted a thick stream of vomit in a bold arc over the podium.
The following then happened in rapid-fire 1-2-3 order: the dull, soupy schplat of Eric's breakfast hitting the carpeted steps; the unmistakable wet sound of an earlier meal exiting from his other end into his tighty-whities and cheap suit pants; and a two-part thud-thud as the bar mitzvah boy hit the deck, out cold.
Chaos. People leaping to their feet, screaming. The rabbi throwing himself over the Torah like a Secret Service agent protecting the president. My dad was already pushing past me to go render aid. My mom was covering my sister's eyes. Josh was standing, repeating "Hoooh, shit! Hooooh, shit! " in joyful disbelief.
It all swirled around me, people jostling me left and right, but I sat there, numb, expressionless, already in shock, my impending and inevitable doom now clear to me.
And then Josh, as if reading my mind, clapped a thick hand on my shoulder and said with a huge grin, "Guess what, Isaac--in three weeks, that's going to be you up there."
IN WHICH MY GUILT AND FEAR TORMENT ME AND VERY UNWELCOME NEWS IS DELIVERED
Guilt and fear are gnawing at the very core of my being. I'm in terrible, terrible trouble, and it's my fault, and the news my mother has just given me makes everything far, far worse.
"Josh will take care of us?!" She must be kidding.
"Yes," says my mother. "Don't look at me that way! Your father and I have spoken with him. It will be fine."
I continue to stare at my mother in disbelief for several seconds. She's not kidding.
"Josh?" I finally manage. "Yes."
"Will take care of us?" "Yes!"
"You think that will be ‘fine'?"
It's a Power Yes, delivered with a backward-leaning wind-up and emphatic forward thrust of the head, as if she's catapulting the conversation-ending-response at me. She holds the position, eyes wide, gaze boring into mine, searching for signs of unwise resistance. I zag.
"Isaac, your father and I have already--" "Dad!"
My father, his profile to me, holds up a distracted finger from across the room. I hear him saying something about blood gases into the phone.
"Isaac," says my mother, "I told you, we've discussed it already. Here, wash this." She shoves a potato into my hands.
I wash, gnawing on my lips, barely noticing what I'm doing. It's early evening, Thursday, not quite a week after the tragic events at Temple Israel. We're all in the kitchen. My mother is at the center island, chopping vegetables for soup. My father is ten feet away, wandering in a random pattern by the dining table as he nods into the phone, on a call now for thirty minutes discussing a patient. From the old radio on the counter come the opening bars ofAll Things Considered, blending with the comforting sounds of the neighborhood--a lawn mower humming on a distant lawn, birds singing, Lisa and her friends playing in the backyard, similar sounds repeated from lawn after lawn after lawn in a safe cocoon that extends for miles in every direction, everyone inside and outside that cocoon unaware that my parents have gone insane.
My father is going to Italy in two days for a conference. He'll be there for two full weeks. And now, my mother casually informs me, she will be joining him, because the organizers have suddenly
thrown in a free ticket for her and what a fabulous opportunity and how could she miss it? But it will be fine, you see, because Josh will take care of us. It's insane. They're insane.
"Insane!" I mutter. "What?" "Nothing."
Boom. The house shudders. It's from the basement. Josh.
I still haven't recovered from Eric's bar mitzvah. When I'm awake I want to be asleep, just to escape the angst that eats away at my guts all day, but when I do manage to sleep--not an easy thing for me in general--I dream that it's me up there onstage, except I'm naked but for my semi-Jewfro and I can't remember anything and I'm totally unprepared. Which isn't that far from the truth. Hence the fear and guilt. What I need now is support and comfort and stability, not to hear that both my parents will be gone for two weeks at this critical juncture and that Josh will take care of us and it will be fine.
I scrub the potato, sweating, formulating strategies.
BOOM. Boom boom BOOM.
"What about renal failure?" my dad is saying into the receiver. "You know, maybe I should stick around."
A ray of light. "Yeah, maybe Dad should stick around," I second hopefully.
"He is not sticking around. It's been planned for a year, and he's speaking, and they're paying him, and he's not backing out now," she says, raising her voice to direct the last part of the sentence at him. He flaps a hand at her in exasperation.
"Well, why do you have to go?" "Isaac . . ."
Even I can hear the drawn-out, two-toned, childish whininess in my voice, but I don't care.
"Because I want my trip to Italy!" she says, jabbing the knife in my direction with each syllable. The knife point drops to target the potato I'm holding. "I think that's clean enough."
I look at the potato, which now has a bowl-shaped divot in it. "Here. Peel," says my mom. The potato is swapped for a carrot.
Peeler is supplied. I peel. BOOM. A small metal mixing bowl, resting unstably on a scrap of vegetable matter, rocks subtly and settles into a slightly different position. I glance over at my father. He's now leaning with his back against the long counter near the table, brow furrowed, drumming his fingers on his bald spot, the other hand pressing the phone against his ear. They have to know. I have to tell them. Now. I have to. Deep breath.
Mom, Dad . . .
"Mom, I don't think you should go."
"I've got to get my hair done. You know, this is when I really miss New York, where I could find a competent stylist who--"
"Mom, my fart mitzvah is coming up in three weeks!"
"We'll both be back in plenty of time for--Did you just call it your fart mitzvah?"
"What if I'm not ready?"
"I don't want you calling it your fart mitzvah, Isaac. You're going to slip up and say it in front of the rabbi."
"What if I'm not ready?"
"‘Fart mitzvah.' Honest to God. Herb, did you hear this? Did you hear what he's calling his bar mitzvah?"
More hand flapping from my dad.
Boom boom BOOOM.
"Mom, what if I'm not ready?"
"So what are we paying that tutor for?"
TO NOT SHOW UP!!!! I nearly scream. That secret is the specific source of much of my fear and all my guilt. Because that's what Yoel, the tutor, has been doing: not showing up. He's some sleepy-eyed Israeli guy with a shaved head and sunglasses who wears too much cologne. He came to the first two sessions, and then he basically . . . stopped. Each week he calls my cell about ten minutes after we're supposed to have started: "Hallo. Yitzhak? Theez eez Yoel." Then he explains that he can't make it this time but zee nest time for sure.
I can't say I've minded. Who wants to sit there with a bored, patronizing sabra practicing my Hebrew when I can be blowing s*** up on the Xbox? Except, it just kept happening. Each time. And soon the weeks were flying by.
"He seems like a very nice man," my mom is saying, scraping a mound of vegetables into the giant soup pot.
"Yoel. Your tutor." "Um . . . yyyes."
You've probably gathered that I haven't done a very good job of communicating my situation to my parents. How was the session today? my mom asks each time, when she gets home in the evening. Fine, I always say. Except there are no sessions. And the longer I've waited to tell them, the harder it's gotten, and I've been feeling guiltier and guiltier, and now there's no time left and I'm not ready and I'm realizing that the person I've been lying to the most is me.
My mother glances over at me. "Are you all right? You look ill." "I'm fine."
"Isaac, you feeling okay?" My dad, from across the room, his radar instantly locking on to any hint of infirmity.
"Judy, maybe I should stay," he says, covering the mouthpiece. "I'm concerned--"
"‘Concerned about this patient,'" she says, finishing his favorite line for him. "I swear to God, Herb," she says, shaking the knife at him this time, "if you don't go, I'm divorcing you. Here." She tosses another carrot to me.
I don't know if you're Jewish or know how a bar mitzvah works. You have to memorize a lot of things that you'll be chanting. Alot of things. In Hebrew. I'm going to brag for just a moment now and say that I'm a very good student. I'm in AP English, AP history, and pre-calc. School comes easy to me. I was assuming that the Hebrew would come easy as well. It hasn't. It hasn't come at all, and there are only three weeks left, and I'm going to end up like Eric Weinberg, but worse.
True, his spectacular collapse was ultimately traced back to bad whitefish salad, something that eventually caught up with several other members of the bar mitzvah party. But I don't need food poisoning to make me throw up and faint onstage. I just need my own brain, undermining me like it always does. I've told you about my nonfunctioning Panic immune system. Give me an even semistressful situation and it's like someone has cast a spell on me, filling me with stupid. I start to sweat and shake and can barely get my mind to work, and the few words that make it from my brain to my mouth tend to come out in the wrong order if they come out at all.
A flurry: boom boom boomboomboom BOOOM. The bowl resettles.
"How is poor Eric Weinberg doing?" asks my mom. "I hope the other kids aren't being mean to him."
I glance over at her. Sometimes I'm not sure if she's from this planet, or this universe. She might as well say,I sure hope that gravity isn't in effect right now.
I should give you some background: I live in Edina, Minnesota. There are 597 kids in my seventh grade class.Four of us are Jews. Everyone else has a name like Peterson or Jensen or Swanson or Schultz, and they look like the perfect blond Aryan youth in the old Hitler posters. I feel like a troll at an elf party.
So just the fact that you're Jewish and have to have a bar mitzvah is embarrassing enough. Being the kid who threw up, pooped in his pants, and passed out at his bar mitzvah is a total nightmare. Being that kid and having it all somehow end up on YouTube is a nightmare deep-fried in apocalypse sauce. It's still a mystery who put it online. All I know is that it was all over school in about a millisecond, and last I checked, the video had over twenty thousand hits. Twenty thousand! In two days!!
Do you know that painting The Scream? If you don't, you should check it out, because that's what Eric has been looking like at school--the character fromThe Scream, if that character had finally stopped screaming from sheer exhaustion. That, or Gollum fromThe Lord of the Rings, except a Gollum who's gone a few rounds with a Harry Potter dementor. In the hallway, I caught sight of Eric, shrunken and haggard, hugging the walls as he stumbled from class to class. I avoided him like the plague.
I'm not proud of it, but there it is. Obviously, being seen with him would mean instant social death. I may not be that high up on the social ladder, but there's no way I'm going to plummet back down to Eric's current level, a dank, sunless dungeon populated by creatures like Tim Simonson, who still snacks on stuff he digs out of his nose. That, plus I don't want to risk catching Eric's bad luck.
In some ways I should thank him. What happened to him shocked me out of my complacency, stripping bare the lie I've been living for the past six weeks. I need to change course now, to find a way to get ready.
The first thing I had decided to do: reveal everything to my parents, spill my guts. Maybe they'd postpone the bar mitzvah or let me convert to some other religion. Anything. I had been, in fact, working myself up to tell my mom, until the very moment that she told me she'd be going with Dad on his trip. But now it's all spinning out of control, all going nuts.
Boom boom BOOM. BOOOOM! Something final and decisive about the last one.
"Are you sure you're all right?" my mother says. "You all right?" seconds my dad.
"Do you need to go sit on the toilet or something?" asks my mom.
"Go sit on the toilet if you have to," says my dad. "I don't need to sit on the toilet!"
"Well, what's wrong with you?"
"Mom, I really--I don't know, I just don't think I'm ready, and--"
"Give me that carrot."
"Are you sure you have to leave? I mean, what if there's a problem?"
"How could there be a problem? You're a grownup. Josh is here. He's a very different person from what he once was," says my mom.
"But my fa--my bar mitzvah! I still might need help!"
"Look," my mother says to me. "If you need more practice, Josh will help you--he loves that stuff."
"Right, Josh?" my mom says to my brother, who has strolled into the kitchen on cue, absently tossing a heavy medicine ball up and down like it weighs nothing. He's sweating and breathing hard from hitting the heavy bag, which is what was vibrating the bones of the house.
"You're big on the Jew stuff," says my mom. "You can help Isaac, right?"
Josh grins that big predatory grin of his.
"Of course!" he says. "Stick with me, little bro. I'll take care of you." And he dots the end of the sentence by chucking the medicine ball at me.
"Great," I rasp from the floor, my body curled around the medicine ball that is embedded in my stomach. "Great."