There is something about a toasty warm bed, covers drawn up to your neck, bed frame sidled up, right next to the radiator, its warmth diffusing through down and linen, with gray clouds and rain falling on those poor unfortunates outside; that is hard to describe.
It’s the pure pleasure of it. That feeling that makes you want to wriggle up into a little ball and just be safe in your fabric fashioned womb of all intents and purposes. That feeling that makes you want to pull the covers just so around your shoulders so as not to let an ounce of warmth escape.
I was enjoying this particular pleasure today due to the fact that I had beaten the system. I had analyzed it, studied it, many times fallen prey to its pitfalls, and now understanding it… had triumphed.
You see, dorm counselors always checked in the early morning, you know, to catch the sleepy heads, those kids who just couldn’t drag themselves out of bed in the morning. Plus, you had the kinas system, enforced by the Rabbis watching carefully from their shtenders. You come late to davening too often and they charge you five dollars for which you would get a dollar back a day with perfect attendance, but miss once, well…lets just say yeshiva stakes are double or nothing.
But they had not envisioned my particular pathology. My unique deficiency in spirituality.
I suppose for most people, once they had arrived at davening, that was it, they would mouth by route the far flung praises of god, with combined description of human depravity and lowliness, scarcely if ever fathoming a word of their regurgitated parroting.
But for me davening was like a slow death. Torturous repetition of the same old paragraphs, day after day after day. The prayers themselves seemed flat and tasteless, and I had simply concluded that praying was just not something that I did.
Hence my system: I would vigorously make my way to the beis medrish every day on time, to avoid kinas. Plant myself noticeably in front of my Rebbi and wind the strands. Pace and shuckle with vibrato; my false intent inversely proportional to my gyrations. Unwind as if for bathroom break. And retreat to my dorm room for, well… for this.
I did a full check… feet: warm… No, make that toasty warm, back: warm, tusch: warm, arms and legs: warm and warm. I looked outside at gray skies and mist of rain.
Today I had a special treat and I pulled it out from under my pillow.
It was the first book in Asimov’s foundation series and I was hooked. I had a bag of red twizzlers next to my bed from which I would occasionally pull a piece to chew on.
The breakfast of Champions.
Even the poor art on the cover from the early seventies, already garish in the eighties, seemed enticing to me, secluded as I was in the gemara exclusive yeshiva world.
I ran my fingers over the cover, treasuring the act of starting to read almost as much as reading itself.
Here I would escape into a world were dogma and tradition played second fiddle to rational and logic. Asimov didn’t have action heroes. His protagonists played a cool game of scientific thought and expert application to solve their problems. Their reward? The wide universe to explore and contemplate.
Oh, how I whished, if only it were true. Imagine it. To be out there amongst the stars, using your wits to make real decisions, choices that mattered.
It made going to shiur to hear the hundredth opinion on how deep a pit had to be to collect fees from the property owner for your damaged oxen, seem more than worthless.
How could this beautiful vision of the future I shared with Asimov and the cryptic scripts in my Talmud coincide? I think I already suspected that they could not.
And so I fled reality through the pages in front of me, drinking in this world of the future with a thirst unquenchable.
But my flight of fancy was short lived, nary a few pages turned and I heard the cacophony of voices and shouts that meant davening was over and the hordes had returned to the dormitory.
One pair of voices drifting down the hallway was particularly familiar, and I slid my book under my pillow as reading time was over.
Even before he opened the door I heard his side of the perpetual argument.
“Eli, you are mamash, the stupidest person I have ever met. I’m not kidding, there is mamash something wrong with you,” Yakov said, and laughed shaking his head as Eli Rubenstein followed him in.
“Yakov, listen to me, OK, just listen, I’m telling you, I work in the kitchen, OK, this is how they do it with everything…everything,” Eli pleaded for understanding.
The truly bizarre thing is that neither of them were my roommates, why would anyone come back from davening to a room that was not their own? I think it was my mindset, my stalwart resistance to buying in to the yeshiva system. It was like a pheromone to the rest of the malcontents, a chemo-attractant that brought the unhappy and ill suited to yeshiva life into my presence like moths to flame.
Yakov was laughing, mirthfully enjoying his torment of Eli, “It’s frosted flakes,” he said simply, breaking into a full grin, “haven’t you ever gone to a super market and bought frosted flakes, you stupid puta-head.”
There was more laughter on Yakov’s part; for him this was far more about the opportunity to be vulgar than about debate, though clearly neither were his strong suits. Isolated from society, as were we all, adding curse words to the word “head” was about the best way he could think of to articulate his point; as his yeshiva experience had thus far culminated in a rudimentary background of Talmudic Aramaic and a dysfunctional fetish for curse words used incorrectly.
But for Eli this was quite serious, you could see it in his face, he stared at Yakov intently and his voice cracked with conviction and emotion, as he explained, as if to a child, “What happens when the cafeteria makes spaghetti and meatballs….They get plain spaghetti and then add the meatballs…OK…Now ….”
More Laughter from Yakov. He was tall with dark hair, and his mirth was a cover for the pain of his youth. His mother had passed a few years back and he had incorporated this psychological scar into his personality as if a sieve through which no further pain could pass. All consequences, all eventualities on the river of life, gathered as flotsam and jet sum at the iron bars of this grate, unable to gain entry. It seemed nothing could bother Yakov because nothing could get in. Where everyone else cowered from authority and fled from discipline Yakov would strut headlong into trouble as if to ask the world for it’s worst that he might sample it at his leisure.
Now he sprawled easily on my roommate’s bed, as if on his own sofa, bemused at Eli’s efforts of logic and comparison.
“Now what happens when the cafeteria… listen I’m serious! When the cafeteria makes tuna sandwiches, OK, they get the bread…”
“Mamash the stupidest person I’ve ever met.”
“They get the bread…” said Eli, refusing to be derailed from his one-way trip to logical Armageddon. Out of all of us, Eli was the poorest fit for Yeshiva life, his light blond hair gave him the aura of a California surfer tragically misplaced from the glistening sun to the maximum detention of the pale, off white, walls of Yeshiva, and his attitude towards learning confirmed this theory for the rabbinate.
“You know you could just ask them,” I interjected, “at the cafeteria, I mean, ask them what they do.”
The frosted flakes debate had been raging for the past few days, particularly during breakfast; and tiring of it, I hoped to bring it to an early end.
I might as well of not have been there, for I clearly did not understand this conversation. It wasn’t about arriving at a destination; there was no search for truth. This was a blustering of wills, a contest of ego’s, these two stags felt the need to lock horns at every occasion, as if the ill circumstances of their lives could be purged through heated debate. It was a pressure valve through which they bled off steam.
“They get the bread, and they add the tuna.”
“Mamash an idiot.”
“It’s the same with frosted flakes! Yakov, I’m telling you!”
Yakov shaking his head in mirth, and disbelief.
“They get corn flakes…”
“And then they add…”
I admit it; I was almost relieved, at the characteristic knock on the door that barely preempted the arrival of Shalom Newberg, head dorm counselor. At the very least it meant an end to this insidious nonsense.
Of course, conversation trickled into a guilty silence as he entered the room. He was a big man, carrying his weight smack in the middle of his body, as if his demented creator had maliciously applied the play dough of his design, molding tube after tube to the midsection, until balance and locomotion could only be achieved by a wide gated waddle. And so he entered, swinging his center of gravity from one leg to the other, scanning his surroundings through tinted glasses, ever bemused and disappointed smirk gracing his countenance. Face shielded under black hat pulled low.
“Hello…?” he said, but that is a mistake, he said hello, but he meant, “trouble..? Is there trouble here? Because I sniff out trouble like a bloodhound sniffs out its quarry.”
In his left hand Shalom held his soft back blue loose-leaf, his sefer, his compendium of accumulated knowledge. He tapped his thumb on it gently and roamed around the room.
I got out of bed to put my shirt and tzitzis back on. The appearance of motion and action, I figured, was good, doing nothing was bad: bitul z’man, therefore doing something made me good, and we all direly needed to be good. None of us were in very good standing with the hanhallah, least of all Eli.
Shalom watched me in a detached manner, as if viewing a rerun of a show he cared little for. His observation wasn’t coy, or well disguised. It was open and blatant. He was here to oversee my actions, like one might observe a laboratory rat.
He watched closely as I slid on my Yellow tzitizis and began to button my shirt. I tried not to meet his gaze. Shalom coming into my room made me terribly aware of the radio buried in my bottom drawer, and my library books, scattered in different hiding places. They burned guiltily on my conscience. When I looked back at him he was still staring.
“You were at davening?” he asked, implying the negative, in a fashion almost unique to yeshiva.
Did he know my trick, or was he just asking because I got out of bed?
I held up my left arm, showing him the mark of my teffilin, like the sign of a tribal warrior affirming his allegiance. I had tied them extra tight to leave deep grooves in my skin even after a few minutes…evidence, as I liked to think of it.
He seemed satisfied, for the moment, “And you, Eli, you were at davening?”
Poor Eli, he felt he could only do himself harm by talking, he had been badgered into silence by the powers that be.
He mumbled something to the affirmative with his head tucked to his chin and moved to the safety of my bed where he sat to stare sharply downward as if exquisitely fascinated for the moment by the intricacies of linoleum flooring.
“Hey, Shalom!” said Yakov, gearing up for another round of insubordination. It was his favorite pastime. I don’t know how he got away with it. My guess is that there were directives from the very top, that this disturbed young man needed time and guidance, not discipline. Whatever it was that kept Yakov in the good graces of the hanhallah, he sensed it out there working for him and pushed it to its limits with heartfelt glee at every opportunity.
”Hello Yakov,” said Shalom, “I know you were at davening, I saw you.”
Yakov stood up from the bed, becoming very serious for a moment, “but I didn’t see you Shalom…I didn’t see you at all, did you have a nice rest, a good shluf?”
Shalom just shook his head in response, he didn’t have any game plan for this, he only knew his one approach: search and destroy backed by fear of retaliation. Without that he wasn’t much.
Now Eli and I got to enjoy the show.
“How is your sefer coming along,” asked Yakov in his slow pressured monotone, pointing at the blue book in Shalom’s hand, “What’s it about, will you tell us?” He broke into a snicker at the end of this statement.
He was laughing at Shalom, but I really didn’t understand why. I wasn’t as mature as Yakov, and the politics of the adult realm where still a little befuddling to me.
It never occurred to me that being the dorm counselor in your mid forties and dealing with a bunch of teenage irritants might not be on the top of any ones career list. It never struck me that Shalom might be looked down upon by the rest of the adult community; all I knew was that he ruled my life with an iron fist.
I suppose that for Shalom, the notebook he liked to scribble in was to be his redemption; this assertion of his learned meanderings was to be his deliverance from mediocrity and banal high school work, lifting him to the upper echelons of the learned elite….if he could ever finish it.
I had never put that together but Yakov seemed to know it instinctively, and was in the process of picking at this particularly sensitive area on Newberg’s physique, much to all our delight, when Eli decided to get comfortable on my bed and pulled my pillow over to prop his head against the radiator where he lay edgewise, viewing the unfolding events like a good trip to the theatre with front row seats.
I wanted to scream it out loud, but I caught the noise in my throat before it escaped, leaving just a wheeze to exit my lips in dismay.
Didn’t he realize what he just did ??
My heart started to hammer in my chest, and my hands froze mid button. There, where my pillow once lay, was now exposed, one Isaac Asimov novel, cellophane cover glinting in the fluorescent lighting like some out of place polished rock.
“You’ll get to read it when I’ve finished it”, said Shalom still oblivious to my uncovered treasure. He was truly absorbed by Yakov’s insolence and was handling it as calmly as he could.
My senses were tuned into high gear as adrenaline flushed through my body. It’s the second you have before hitting the brakes to avoid a crash. The moment you have to observe calamity as it strikes and retain a chance of preventing it. I knew I had to act quickly. He would notice it in a second.
I was only a few steps from my bed but I knew my movement would draw his attention exactly where I didn’t want it. I dared not move towards it…yet what other choice did I have?
“And when will that be, pray tell” Yakov incorporated his smirk into the tone of his question, he was enjoying his chutzpah as any good yeshiva bochur should, and Eli took a moment to glance away from the conversation and wink at me with shared mirth.
I tried to catch his eye by opening mine wider in alarm. Oh damn him, why couldn’t he sense my predicament.
I took all my anger, all my fear, held my breath and squeezed every muscle in my body till my jugular veins stood out like chords on my neck, and funneled this raw power into a gaze so smolderingly hot it threatened to ignite the room. I seared Eli with this ferocious stare and burnt my thoughts into his head like laser carving into granite.
“Put my goddamn pillow back, you moron”, my telepathy roared into the deepest recesses of his mind.
He returned a quizzical look.
Why wasn’t he getting this ??
Summoning brain cells long dormant from hours of seder, and mustering a force of unbridled will from depths only accessible in such times of need, I blasted him with a scathing session of subliminal Morse code, throwing it across the room with the mental force of a Jedi master…. Beep… biti…. biti ….beep… boop… boop….. put my goddamned pillow back !
Eli returned his attention to Yakov and Shalom, likely assuming I was constipated.
Oh hell, it was useless, my exasperated sigh was silent, I was going to have to go over there and slide that pillow back myself. At this point walking over and sitting on top of my book seemed an even better plan than trying to get Eli to quietly relinquish my pillow.
“When the time is right”, said Shalom sighing and invoking his own version of hashgachah pratis as he cradled his blue notebook in both hands, “It will be ready when the time is right”, he turned away from Yakov, weary with his own abuse, and my stomach sank as his gaze perked up. I think his eyelids fluttered open a little wider when he saw it, kinda like a dog catching site of a particularly edible piece of garbage. There was that readjustment of the neck, and perking up of the ears and then just a quick step and he swept Asimov off my bed sheets in one motion, with a grace his body belied. He held my book aloft as if a gem to be admired in full light.
“What’s this, Benyamin”?
Yakov shook his head in dismay; even his protected status could not help me here. Eli shrugged his shoulders in his patented, ‘how the hell was I supposed to know’, gesture of reconciliation.
The loss is hard to describe, it had turned a wonderful morning in to post breakfast despair; it’s difficult to have things taken from you, against your will, even when they are little things. It’s more the sense of powerlessness than the missing object itself, the sense that no element of your destiny is in your own hands save through cunning and deceit.
That book had been a great comfort to me, a great joy, and it’s impending loss did more than just cast a shadow over my day, it turned me from a student into a defendant in the case of yeshiva vs. too young to fight for his own rights.
What to do, What to do, all hope was not yet lost, was it?
Brass it out, I thought, show no hint of wrongdoing.
“Library book”, I said simply, no, I said boldly, I said brazenly, so it seemed like truth, truth not worth wondering about, truth not worth questioning.
“From our library?”, he asked dubiously. He was right to be dubious, our yeshiva library contained in total, perhaps three Agatha Christie books with certain pages removed due to their unwholesome nature. These deletions allowed the mystery of the murder to remain long after the last page was turned.
To lie, not to lie, so many mortal questions to be faced with on such a misty morning.
“It should be”, I claimed erroneously, reverting to yeshivish semi-logic,” it’s has nothing in it that’s osser, you can read it and see”!
Oh, that fucking smirk, it was deep and dark and it spoke to me as he eyed me up and down, it said, ‘do you think I read things that I can’t paraphrase into my little blue sepher of redemption? Do you think I tempt myself with knowledge from the outside? Never! I know the truth of my life from what my Rebbi told me, never to be challenged or examined, and I promise to teach you the same!’
His fingers traced the cover much as mine had done a few minutes ago.
The act was good, he really appeared to think it over for a moment, I can only guess it was part of my torment.
“If it’s not part of the Yeshiva library….then it’s ossur”, and with that he left the room, moving with surprising speed for a man of his girth.
But I hadn’t given up yet, I had to hustle to keep up with him but I made it down to the other side of the hall and into his office before he slammed the door.
With a sigh he let me squeeze through as he closed it.
His office was a dormitory room, but barren. A thin desk was pushed up against the wall and next to it a stout metal chair afforded the rooms only comfort. Shalom placed his blue sefer on the table, and shaking his head in exasperation, turned to face me.
“You know you can’t have this here, Benyamin, you know this.”
“Wait a second”, I said putting my Yeshiva thinking cap on and twisting it into full gear, “Why are things ossur, I mean, why do we make things ossur?”
He shook his head. He wasn’t going to have this conversation with a fourteen year old.
Oh, yes you are!!
I continued my monologue, “It’s because they have something bad in them, like preitzus or curse words or. or….bad things.”
All right, so it may not have been on par with a Supreme Court review, but I felt I was getting my point across.
“But this book, Rabbi Newberg, this book is not about any of that, it’s about a dream of the future…it’s an idea, an idea of what might happen…what’s wrong with that?”
“I think you know, Benyamin”, he put the book in his closet full of contraband and turned the key which he then placed in his top drawer, “this book and it’s crazy ideas, allows you to stop thinking like a ben torah…it’s lets you be something else, and that, that we can’t let happen.”
My prepared answer slipped from my mind, my vigor disappeared, and I felt deflated and beaten. He was right, a little voice said inside my head; he had hit the nail right on the head, that was exactly what I was using the book for. If he could see through me so clearly perhaps he was right about everything. Maybe what I needed was to concentrate more on my studies, and become what he wanted me to become. Isn’t that what my parents wanted, what everyone in a position of respect and authority that had ever come across my little life had told me was true and important.
I felt tears spring to my eyes as the best argument against me came from my own mind, as my rebellion collapsed under the weight of guilt.
I was too much of a big man to cry, so I opened my eyes wide and blinked back the tears.
“But it’s not your book to take”, by know my voice was cracking, “and it’s from the library, so it’s not mine to give, your stealing it from them, your stealing!”
It was a last ditch attempt, one last appeal to a softer side, as if one existed.
“No you are the one who has lost it for them”, said Shalom sitting at his desk now and starting to transcribe little tidbits from some halachah sefer into his own blue notebook of destiny.
I turned away, I couldn’t look at him, I stared out his window at the tall grass behind the building and watched it sway in the gentle wind. I rested my arms on the sill and tried to calm my self.
So many thoughts were racing through my head. I wanted that book back so bad, in a way that is so hard to remember as an adult. I truly have to think back to once again feel the outrage of having my meager possessions whisked away, to reminisce on the feeling of powerlessness to even just say, it’s mine and what right do you have to take it: to feel that vulnerable, that violated.
And in many ways the escape that fiction offered me had become more than leisure reading, in many respects, shuffling through the imaginary galaxies of Asimov’s creation was the highlight of my day, and the thin strand that I clung to, trying to keep a sense of myself and my own joys and dreams, in the yeshiva melting pot that presumed to tell me what I ‘really’ wanted.
But on the other hand, what if it was true, what if he was grooming me for a destiny I had simply not been able to imagine and in order to get there I had to follow his every command even to the point of shutting out the outside world of thoughts and dreams I loved so dearly.
Was it right to turn over the wheel to some near stranger who simply insisted upon it with unblinking eyes, assuring you your best interest were at heart? Was that obedience? Was it required of me?
Not many kids have a midlife crisis at fourteen, and I did my best to weather it, with the primitive tools I possessed. What was right? Where was truth in these murky waters of necessary subservience to someone else’s worldview?
I didn’t will it to happen, but it broke, something deep inside of me, that is, snapped like a piece of tinder wood. I suppose it happens gradually for most children turning into teenagers, but I felt it go all at once, creaking at first like a wooden bridge over country
Creek, burdened by a large truck passing over, and finally crumbling and falling into the abyss of things that were, but are now no more.
I think it was that overeager, childhood will to achieve and follow directions to which I said farewell that day. That ambivalent humility that allows you to nod your head in agreement as the rules of your life are laid out before you.
Which is a touch sad, to leave a little piece of yourself behind.
I mean, I was a really sweet kid, never made any trouble, I was the Valedictorian of my grade school, for crying out loud, shared only with the son of the school president (a juvenile delinquent of catastrophic proportions).
It was a bitter sweat parting, as I realized this little bit of me had to go so I could survive amongst the powerful manipulating forces of the world.
It replaced itself though. Substituted itself with something ugly, something fierce, something carnal, something much more sixteen: a snarl that declares itself through pursed lips and pressured tones, and bitterly spits out, ‘what the fuck do you know’, to all pronouncements of authority, a hint of which remains with me to this very day.
I made a decision then, that finding truth was a journey of my own, for which I would accept guidance but never relinquish control over my life to someone who….what the hell was he doing?….to someone who was plagiarizing a halachah sefer into his little blue notebook.
He would not rule me like a vassal state, I wouldn’t let him!!
Source of my parents pride and joy…
Best kid in his grade school class…
Carrier of my family’s hopes and dreams..
I slowly turned the latch on Shalom Newberg’s window, that day, as sure as sin, with a plan so foul I dared not imagine it had sprung from my very own mind.
I pushed with my thumb, and felt the friction as the metal base of the latch grated on wood. I was almost unaware of the action until it clicked firmly in the open position.
Finally the thought in my mind connected to the action of my hand.
If he could take things from me with no reason, what reason did I need to take them back?
He was behind me again.
Had he seen?
He put an arm on my shoulder.
“One day you will understand, Benyamin”, he said looking deep into my eyes, “one day you will thank me.”
Not bloody likely.
I wriggled from his grasp and made my way out of the room.
I was too sore to talk with anyone that day, and managed to pass through most of it by completing the motions of chavrusah and Seder, nodding my head at the appropriate pauses. Muttering the key phrases in parody of understanding. My mind never leaving what I had done, and what I might do next.
I returned from that long day in the beis medrish late, to two roommates already asleep. I crawled into bed, and retrieving my radio from its hiding place, stayed up late into the night and early morning to the syncopated croonings of eighties pop.
I pulled off the headphones as my alarm clock read three AM. I scanned the room with eyes well adjusted to the darkness. I could just make out the forms of my two roommates. Shlomo slept in a well-regimented fashion much as he lived his life; his form was straight, hands folded over his stomach, as if even in sleep he could not allow himself true comfort. Perhaps he dreamt of orderly bookshelves arranged alphabetically just so. Chaim, as if to portray his cosmic opposite, lay sprawled like a drunken sailor, covers half on half off, with one leg clear off the bed, rumpled sock still on foot.
They were the good influences I had been put together with to negate my yearnings for life outside these confines. They were both solid learners and proponents of the ‘col yisrael arevim zeh la zeh’ philosophy. Thus I would have to be very careful.
I pulled the covers back and sat up in bed.
Everything is eerie in the silence of the night and I listened closely to their even respirations until I felt sure they were in a deep sleep.
I gathered my courage.
There wasn’t much of it. Most of me decided not to get out of bed, most of me decided to roll over and let my weary eyes close
But the memory returned to me, and for a moment I was back in Shalom’s office, blinking back tears, bargaining for what was mine, and making a decision about who controlled my life.
I did it in one swift movement. It was better that way, for there was no squeaking, hesitant ascent to wake my roommates, I yanked my window open full force and the cold early morning air stripped me of my fatigue.
I was over the sill in a moment and my bare feet touched the cold grass and crunched, as it was already stiff with frost. The initial cold sent a shiver from my toes straight up my backbone with a jolt as strong as electricity. I slid the window closed behind me and stared back at my roommates for a moment, as my breath collected as condensation against the glass. Chaim rolled over once and presumably returned to sweet dreams of shayna meidilach.
The warmth of my body was whisked away with the first gust of wind and I held my arms tightly at my sides. Dim and flickering light filtered down from the beis medrish up on the hill casting an eerily large shadow of me on the building, advertising my guilt as larger than life.
I crouched low next to my window, Christ, what was I doing? I hadn’t really done anything wrong yet, I could still turn back… my warm bed awaited, but I didn’t. Instead I scanned around me through the murky shadows for the unlikely mishmor night owl who might spot me out and about.
But the campus was silent and still, nothing stirred as far as the eye could see.
Crouched low I bolted along the side of building, bare feet - snap, crackle, and popping across early morning frost. Within a few seconds they turned numb from the cold.
By the time I reached the edge of the building my heart was slamming in my chest. I had wandered quite far from home base now; there would be no explanation for me being half way around the building in my pajamas at this hour.
I turned around the side of the building and was greeted by a warm blast of air from the laundry room, then in between the dumpsters and around the back of the building and… darkness.
Oh darkness, my friends, we tell ourselves we fear it not, but in the pitch black of night a primal fear, a pontine reptilian angst, permeates our thoughts and precipitates actions that are a small step from full mindless panic.
When you are outdoors in the darkness, not just dim light, but true darkness, every sensation, every sound takes on more meaning. It’s easy to forget how powerful the absence of sight is, how quickly it robs you of common sense and rationale. Every wisp of grass that brushed past my knees that night felt like something crawling up my pants leg and I swatted at them furiously. Every tweet and chirp from the trees behind me was the coy mimicking of a stray wolf at the edge of the woods behind the dormitory; I waited with baited breath searching blindly into the night air for the neon yellow eyes I expected at any moment to flicker in the distance.
I turned on my heel twice, convinced that something occupied the space twelve inches behind my head. It took all my nerve to put one foot in front of the other. And I traced the edge of the building with my hand counting down windows until I reached the outside of Shalom’s office.
I bent down next to it.
Would they check for fingerprints?
I took a moment to imagine myself in a police line up, sobbing to my parents, about how sorry I was.
I should turn back.
But I had already come so far!
Wrapping my shaking hands in the bottom of my shirt, I gently pushed up on the outside of his window.
It didn’t budge.
Thank god, it didn’t budge, I had done all I could, all that any one could, to fight for my own self determination, to make my stand against the powers that be, and now it was time to slink back to my room and…
It came up a half an inch
The momentary comfort of defeat was replaced with the gut wrenching choice of completing my felony.
The warm heated air teased my fingers as it flowed through the thin slit of open window. I looked around myself on all sides and was reassured by the cloak of darkness.
I pushed open his window and slid one leg over then another to stand in Shalom Newberg’s darkened cubicle.
It was then that the act became real to me, I was stranding in the head dorm counselors office at three AM with the intention to steal. I felt sick with fear. My armpits had produced two moist semicircles despite the cold air, and I began to taste something bitter and metallic at the back of a throat too dry to swallow. My ears strained for any hint of noise or movement in the hallway. Even the tapping my bare feet made on the tiles seemed an onerous noise sure to bring our own ninth grade dorm counselor out of his room to investigate.
I would do this quickly and it would all be over like a bad dream. Like a practiced criminal I retrieved the key from his top drawer, cradling it between forefinger and thumb through my shirt. Into the closet I went. The lock made an intolerably loud thunk as it opened. I paused again to listen for opening doors, imagining scuffling shoes and conversation where there were none.
There it lay, greeting me.
I took my book back with a feeling of exultation that is hard to describe, but I did not dwell on it. Loosing no time I locked up and made my way back to the window.
Almost there now….almost there…
I guess I had one leg over the sill when I realized I was caught.
Not with flashing sirens, mind you, or by surprise visit of a dorm counselor, it was something far more simple than that…
It was my own stupidity.
Who else would break into the dorm counselor’s office and take one Isaac Asimov book, but me?
I hoisted my leg back over and reopened the closet, cursing my idiocy, of course I couldn’t just take my book, only I would do that.
I pulled off my shirt and using it as pouch packed in as many radios, soft covers and ossur tapes as it could hold.
It took me a moment to lock back up, and then out the window I went. I was truly fleeing now, carrying a bag full of stolen goods, freezing in the middle of the night with no shirt on. Like any poorly planned crime the outcome kept getting worse and worse, and I had enough time to realize I was involved in the stupidest thing I had ever done, plus I was half naked in forty degrees.
I dashed around the building blindly, taking huge strides despite the darkness, but where to go now?
I was starting to panic, I had not thought this out properly, my only intention had been to right the wrong of my book nabbing, but I couldn’t bring all this crap back to my room! If they found even one item there it would be the end of me. Now I was standing out here freezing to death with a shirt full of paraphernalia and nowhere I could go. For a moment I halted and considered bringing it all back. I would reopen his window and replace it all carefully, erasing the entire event.
There had to be another way, but what? It was so cold I couldn’t stand it anymore; the shivers ran through my body like convulsions and my teeth started to chatter all of their own volition. I had to do something, and here I was stuck in my tracks.
I could see the headlines in the local paper, “Odd shirtless religious ceremony results in freezing death of local yeshiva student. Twelve walkmans used in prayer ritual.”
The warm burst of laundry room air called out to me in its multi detergent scented wisdom, and down the stairs I dashed into warmth that smelled like early spring. I stopped short before the doorway and peered around to make sure the coast was clear.
The room was empty and quiet save for one lonely machine that still churned dutifully drying yenner’s underwear.
Already aware of the best hiding places, I clambered up on a washing machine, pushed a piece of ceiling tile to the side and poured out the contents of my make shift pouch. Even Asimov would have to hide here for while, but someday I would come back for him.
I put my shirt back on, and shaking badly from cold and nerves, sank into a sitting position on the washer, for the first time catching my breath. I walked away from my crime then, each passing step removing that terrible weight from my shoulders. I peered around the corner of the ground floor hallway hoping that everyone would just be asleep and in their rooms, I was lucky, the hallway was as empty and quiet as death. I went back to my room paddling along on numb feet, like walking on air, and closed the door quietly enough not to awaken Chaim and Shlomo.
Never have warm covers heated by the radiator felt so good to slip under. Never had the safety of my bed felt so pronounced. I wriggled my feet back and forth as feeling slowly returned to them and pushed them up against the radiator to let the heat seep back into the bone. I pulled the covers over my head encasing myself like a mummy and swore never to do something so stupid again. I swore it out loud three times like a mantra that could deliver me from my recent actions. Something like I just did could ruin my life forever. I felt neither pride nor bravery, just relief that it was over. I knew it had been wrong for me to steal my book back, but I also knew the culture that took it was just as wrong.
How strange, for the first time, to know something in your heart that no one has ever told you that you should know or could know. How late in life it occurred to me that what I instinctively felt, might be as important and as right as what anyone else believed. The world wasn’t necessarily just rules for me to follow. My future would bring choices to be made, decisions that mattered, just like in Asimov’s books, and I would make them. I would never hand over the unique ability to direct my life to someone else.
Slowly, my involuntary shivers subsided, as the warmth finally sank in; and I tried to let my mind relax and fade into the restfulness of sleep, yet there was one task that still remained.
There, huddled in my blankets, in the quiet darkness that had concealed my misdeeds, I whispered prayers of thankfulness, to a god of my own design.