| Calligraphy |

Diet Sprite

Avigdor

T

he shadchan says she’s an amazing girl, from a wonderful family. Mommy says she’s perfect for me. Which probably means I’ll hate her.

But I do what I gotta do. I shave, put on one of my three dating suits, grab a tie, pick up the rental, and head to Brooklyn.

The only thing that gives me hope is that her name is Tali. That can mean one of three things: She has Israeli roots; her family had been a shade more modern and then they flipped; or her parents were the more free-spirited type and weren’t interested in the classic Bais Yaakov names.

I consider the possibilities as I navigate the freeway. Mommy has had the nastiest flu for the past few weeks, so she roped Tatty into checking Tali out. But Tatty’s research hasn’t unearthed any “past” — so the middle option is unlikely. And if her paternal grandparents knew Babby back in Hungary, and her maternal grandparents were from the famous Schreiber family from Romania, when would anyone have had a chance to be infected with sabra sentiments?

Maybe her parents really did just want something a bit different? Could this Tali have grown up in a family that stepped off the assembly line at some point and allowed a bit of individuality to seep in? Unlikely — the rest of her r?sum? is same old, same old. Twelve years in a top high school here, one year in a top seminary in Eretz Yisrael, then back the States to take speech in a frum college. Head of dance. Yearbook editor. Which makes Mommy happy, but means absolutely nothing in real life.

Oh, and Tatty said he’s met the father several times and he’s a wonderful person and very careful to be kovei’a itim. And the family is “into chesed” and has even fostered a bunch of kids over the years. All very nice — I’m sure Hashem is glad they’re into His mitzvos —but that doesn’t say much about this girl.

I swing off the Verrazano, and get myself to Brooklyn in record time. Tali Lewin lives in a large, well-kept red-brick house—not big enough to be termed ostentatious, not unique enough to catch your eye. Figures.

***

“So, how many siblings did you say you had?”

“There are six of us. I’m the third.” She gives me a polite smile. Drinks a bit of her Diet Sprite. She has that delicate sip down pat, so she’s clearly done this a few times, but she’s still nervous enough that I don’t feel like date #86. I must be number 11 or 12. Which makes sense if she’s in the parshah for two years and has a good name and some money, but not loads of it.

She should realize by now that it’s her turn to ask a question. It should be something about my years in Brisk and what I loved most about Eretz Yisrael. (I’ll tell her it was the incredible learning, never mentioning how I loved haunting Meah Shearim and spending every Friday night meal by a different Yerushalmi family. Because no, it wasn’t the “amaaaazing simplicity, and the beauty of their chinuch” that got to me, but that passion, the fire that seemed to burn in every one of them, although in some it was a bright red blaze and in others a steady yellow flame.)

Or she can ask me about Lakewood. That should keep us busy for at least five minutes.

Or what I do during the summer — although Mommy will be grateful if she skips that one; she always tells me I should just say that I’m in a counselor in a camp and try to change the topic. She says people will get nervous if they realize I go to Minnesota and work in a kiruv camp for public school kids. I’m not sure they’ll get nervous, but I’ll cringe if she says “oh, that’s sooooo special” in that high-pitched voice girls use when they’re talking about all things spiritual.

And I would never be able to explain to her how alive I feel when I’m spending time with little Jews who are so utterly clueless but also so thirsty. There’s this feeling that you gotta somehow stuff the real deal of Yiddishkeit into their hearts and minds because you only have three weeks, and then Jared or Tyler or Max will be back in public school, and all that will remain is the feeling — if you managed to give it to them — that being a Jew is something good and special.

But she asks none of this, so instead I pull out the next first-date question. “And what do your older siblings do?”

“My brother is married and living in Lakewood. He has the cutest little girl.” For a moment, her face lights up and I feel a wisp of hope bubble inside me. A minute later the plastic smile is back. “And my sister is a CPA. She works for a firm in Manhattan. Just got married in November. And you’re the oldest?”

Finally, she’s playing conversation ball. “Nope, I’m nearly the youngest. Three married. Then me. Then a sister under me, Suri, who’s going to seminary next year.”

She grasps at this, and asks me where she’s going, and why she picked the seminary she did. I can’t tell her the truth: that Mommy felt it was the perfect middle-of-the-road seminary that wouldn’t tax her academically, but still give her a great shidduch advantage. So instead I say something about her friends and the great teachers there. Which presumably there are. And she tells me her friend went there and loved it. And on we go.

Her name may be Tali, but there’s nothing original here. I glance up my watch. Forty-five minutes before I can drive her home and get on with life.

 

Tali

H

e’s not exactly rude, this bochur sitting across from me with the perfectly starched white shirt and perfectly pressed black suit and perfectly casual air. But there’s something about him that makes me feel like I’m being judged.

I try to do a quick sweep while keeping up my end of the conversation. My top is demure, my jewelry not bas mitzvah–style delicate but not in-your-face clunky. My skirt is black — you can’t go wrong there. My shoes are low-heeled in case he was short. And my hair — if I tilt my head at the right angle, I can see my reflection in the hotel lobby mirror — still seems to be holding the waves nicely.

If my appearance is okay, maybe it’s me. Am I boring him? Maybe he wants me to talk more? To talk less?

Daddy was thrilled when the shadchan called to suggest Avigdor Waks. He comes from one of those picture-perfect families with yichus back to Moshe Rabbeinu. I’m not sure if they didn’t hear about Aunt Kim and Tzvi or if they heard and just decided to overlook it, but I can’t blow this.

I fish around for some topic of conversation. I try to remember the questions that Avigail and Dina asked on dates, the questions that led to “these incredible conversations where you really get to know him,” but I draw a blank. I’m not good at this. I spend so much time trying to avoid certain topics that it’s hard to really dive into a discussion.

There’s a long silence. A waiter comes by, asks to refill our drinks. Both our glasses are nearly full. We sit there in awkwardness for another long moment.

I’m just about to ask him where he went to camp — that’s a safe question because if he turns it on me I have the right answer — when he speaks.

“If you could be any animal at all, what would you be?” he asks.

“An eagle,” I say before I have a chance to think. “I’d be able to fly, to get away, go anywhere, be free.” And then I’m horrified, because what on earth have I just said? Although what would be the right answer to that question? Who asks their date what animal they’d like to be?! I toss the question back at him.

“A cheetah,” he says without any hesitation. “I love the idea of being able to run that fast and that far.”

“Where would you run to?” I ask.

He gets a faraway look in his eye, but then tells me about the cheetah he saw on a Chol Hamoed trip to the zoo.

I take another sip of Diet Sprite.

 

Avigdor

M

ommy claims that unless a girl is horribly rude or terribly dumb, there’s no good reason to refuse to a second date. First dates, she says, are just warm-up sessions. Which means I spent a lot of time not just on awful first dates, but on awful second dates.

At some point, I put my foot down and told her I can only go out a second time with a girl I feel I have at least a two percent chance of marrying. She felt that was fair —until I refused a second date with nearly every girl she set me up with.

Tali Lewin should be a no. But she wants to be an eagle. She wants to get away, to be free. Free from what? The question intrigues me enough to tell Mommy that I’ll give it a second shot. She beams.

She just better not find out about the animal question. Last winter, the Lefkowitz girl repeated it to the shadchan, who repeated it to Mommy, and she hit the roof. “You asked a girl what animal she would want to be?! What on earth were you thinking, Avigdor Dovid? What do you want her to say? That she wants to be a monkey? A giraffe? A lion?”

“Any answer would be fine,” I told her, “and it would also tell me a lot about her.”

“Please, Avigdor,” she moaned, “don’t ruin your name. You’re a boy, but I still have Suri to marry off. Just play by the rules.”

I nodded, and kept my shidduch questions really pareve after that. But something about Tali made me feel like I had nothing to lose by risking the question — she seems too scared of her own shadow to tattle.

For the second date, I decide to take her to the aquarium. Mommy sniffed and muttered something about my never being conventional, but I just smiled sweetly and asked her for the car keys. I’m so glad it’s bein hazmanim and at least I’m spared the ride up from Lakewood.

I love the aquarium; there’s something about the thought about this entire universe all tucked away undersea that has me fascinated. We look at the water, and see the smooth surface barely rippling, but underneath there are stingrays and clown fish and octopi, fish that glow in the dark and fish that eject ink — this whole wild world we’d never know about if we didn’t just dive in.

I want to share this thought with Tali, but she’ll probably think I’m nuts. So instead I ask her what exhibit she’d like to visit first. She glances at her map. “Well, they’re feeding the dolphins in ten minutes. Should we go watch that?”

So we go, and see them leaping out the water and doing who knows what to get their measly fish.

“Aren’t you glad we don’t have to do that every time we want a bowl of cereal or a burger?” I ask. She laughs, and opens her mouth like she’s about to share something, but then she seals it shut so fast she looks like one of those fish. I hate when people do that. “What were you going to say?” I ask her. I’m being rude, but I can’t stop myself.

“We don’t have to jump for our cereal, but there are plenty of other hoops we have to jump through every day,” she finally says, speaking so low I can barely hear her. She sounds tired, a touch bitter. But then she points to a baby dolphin leaping beside his mother and says, “Oh, look, a baby. Isn’t he adorable?”

We watch the rest of the show in silence.

 

Tali

T

here’s something different about this boy. There seems to be substance underneath that “I’m perfect” air.

My friend Dina would say I’m imagining things. That he doesn’t have that air to him — it’s my own insecurities clogging my brain — but she has no idea what it feels like to sit on a date and feel like an impostor.

To know that your aunt is a pilot and hasn’t been religious in years, your brother has special needs but doesn’t look different and though you love him to pieces everyone else just thinks he’s weird, your family sometimes has more foster kids than biological kids living in the house, and your mother was born in Kentucky and named you Talia of all things!

She has no idea what it feels like to be trying to keep the lid on so many things that it’s scary to talk since you never know when a stray comment will slide out and prove to be your undoing. Nope, not Dina. Dina comes from another one of those perfect families, and that’s why she can shmooze normally and most guys want to date her again. Unlike me, who can’t seem to get it right enough to land a second date.

No clue why this Avigdor fellow bothered — things aren’t looking great. If he’s more interested in the dolphins than our conversation, it can’t be a good sign.

The dolphin feeding ends, and we both look at our maps. “Want to check out the nautilus?” he asks me. “They swim using jet propulsion. It’s really cool!”

The nautilus? Whatever happened to sharks and whales? But all I say is “Sure,” trying to sound enthusiastic, but not overly so.

The nautilus is really cool, and so are the squid and cuttlefish right nearby. I never liked fish much; they always seemed so cold and distant and silent, but Avigdor gets so animated that I start to get excited about their vivid colors and the incredible things they can do.

Dina would say it’s weird, but we spend most of that date talking about fish. Does this guy munch on encyclopedias for breakfast? He knows the strangest facts. This is not the type of date I expected to have with Avigdor Waks. But I’m not complaining.

 

 

Avigdor

I

t’s a good thing I don’t have to be anywhere for at least another four hours. I need some space. I drop Tali off and head to the edge of Brooklyn, to Potter’s Corner. This is one place nobody, and I mean nobody, knows about. Not even Moishe Katz who went with me to Minnesota and loves to garden.

The first time I made pottery was in camp, back when I was in bunk zayin, which means I must have been nine. The camp had just gotten a dozen pottery wheels and a large ceramic kiln— there had been some donation “to further campers’ artistic talents” and they couldn’t think of how else to blow that money. They even had a professional potter come and teach us how to throw clay. Most boys took that expression literally, and there were always clumps of clay flying in the air; we’d always head to the pool after our pottery sessions. But a few of us really got the hang of it.

I loved the way you had this boring lump of clay, and with just water and your hands, you could turn it into practically anything. It could be a vase or a pitcher, a bowl or a plate. While the other boys kept throwing the same vase all summer because they never had the patience to do it right, and the teacher wasn’t willing to fire a lopsided item, I made a set of four bowls. Each had the same basic shape and design but every one was unique.

I learned how to paint and glaze, figured out how to etch designs into wet clay, how to use my fingers to create small grooves that formed a delicate design around the bowl.

The potter told me that the grooves I was making were usually used on vases, not bowls. “Well, I want to put them on my bowl,” I told him.

He looked at me closely to make sure I wasn’t being fresh, and then said, “You’re right, boy. Who cares what people usually do? Chart your own destiny.”

I had no idea what “destiny” meant back then, but the line stuck in my brain.

When I got home, I presented the bowls to Mommy. “Oh, wow,” she said, “you made them yourself? They’re so… they’re so pretty.” I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was trying to figure out what on earth to do with them; they’d never look right in her breakfront overflowing with silver. She took them and told me she’d put them somewhere safe.

I saw them five years later. I was tackling the cavernous cabinet over the fridge for Pesach. They were on the top shelf, at the very back. I ran my fingers over the smooth glaze, the tiny ridges I’d spent hours creating. And I got this crazy itch to feel the clay spinning under my hands, to control every contour, to create whatever I wanted. I looked up pottery in the Yellow Pages, and that’s when I found Potter’s Corner. On foot it took me 40 minutes just to get there, so I could never stay long. But now, at 23, I have a car and a lot more freedom. I can make a few dishes and glaze a few more before my mother starts calling, wondering when I’ll be home.

I yank off my tie and stuff it in my pocket, wiggle into one of the smocks they keep in the corner. I’m in middle of creating a full set of dishes. Not that anyone I know will ever want them, but I’ve already made so many vases and jugs, I wanted to try something new.

Dishes can be tricky; I’m trying to get them thin and elegant, but also strong and firm. In no time, I’m hunched over the pottery wheel. It’s spinning, spinning, spinning, and with just the slightest pressure from my hand, I can change it all.

 

Tali

I

like day dates — no one is home when I get back, so I can just process on my own without needing to give a full report, without trying to sound enthusiastic enough to go out again if he says yes (I almost never say no), but diffident enough that if he says no my parents won’t be devastated.

I run upstairs, kick off my heels. I reach for the phone — Dina is waiting for my update — but then pull my hand back. I’m too scared to share. Too scared to tell her that I really like this guy but I’m nearly certain he’ll drop me because I come across as so pathetic.

Instead, I flop onto the floor and try to untangle my brain. But just then I hear the front door open, and Mommy singsongs: “Anyone home?”

Her voice has a weird pitch, as if she’s performing for someone, and I know that that means she must be with a social worker coming to discuss the placement of some kid who needs a home ASAP because his own home is falling to pieces. If things are crazy enough, the kid may even be with them right now, suspicious, terrified, and trapped, like a bird with a broken wing. I jump up, glance in the mirror, and bound down the stairs.

The kid is with them. Seems to be about seven, although some of these kids are so malnourished they look a lot younger than they really are. He’s trying to look defiant, but he’s failing miserably.

“Hi, there,” I say. “What’s your name?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Daniel, tell them your name,” the social worker says.

“It’s fine,” I tell him, “we can have a great time together even if I don’t know your name. Wanna come see our toy closet?”

The kid’s head bobs around as he tries to shake no and nod yes at the same time. I just head off to the playroom, and sure enough, he follows me.

Eventually, we’ll find out the horrors he went through. One day, he’ll open up, and tell me about a life no kid should ever have. Or maybe not. Some relative may swoop in and rip him out of our home in a month, a week, tomorrow.

But right now we’re playing Battleship.

As I carefully arrange my ships on the grid, an uncomfortable thought worms its way in, a pebble in the shoe of my brain. What would Avigdor think of a family that has random kids floating in and out of their home all the time? Worse, what would his mother think?

 

Avigdor

I

’m in my room, picking out a tie for our third date, when Mommy bursts in. “What time are you supposed to meet that girl?”

That girl… She makes it sound like Tali is a convicted murderer.

I glance at my watch. “Nineteen minutes,” I tell her. “I’ll be leaving in a few.”

“You can’t go,” she says, “this is wrong, all wrong.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t even know where to start,” she says. She flits around my room rearranging everything on the shelves. It drives me nuts, but I twist my fingers together and try to focus on what she’s saying.

“Maybe start at the beginning?”

She sinks onto the chair by my desk. Picks up the onyx paperweight I bought in Minnesota. Puts it down. “Remember how I had that awful flu last month?”

I nod.

“Well, I just couldn’t do the shidduch research I normally do. My head was fuzzy, and my throat was so sore, I sounded awful. It was embarrassing to call people. So I asked Tatty to do the research.” She’s quiet for a minute, groping for the right words.

“Tatty is a wonderful man. He works very hard to support us, he never misses his shiur, he gives a lot of tzedakah. So those are the kinds of things he looked for when he was checking out the Lewins. And all that was great. But… but… he doesn’t quite understand social conventions.

“Avigdor, I’ve been making some phone calls now that I’m feeling better. Did you know that the Lewins take in foster kids from who-knows-where all the time? There’s one in the house right now! Some barely religious kid with a crazy story living with them.”

That sounds fine to me, but I don’t think that’s what Mommy wants to hear, so I stay silent. “It gets worse,” she presses on. “One of their kids has problems. He’s in the remedial track in school. Avigdor, this may be genetic.”

“Ma, half the universe has a sibling with some kind of special needs. Suri would have been in such a program, if you and Tatty hadn’t hired a staff of tutors to get her through school.”

“Avigdor Dovid!” Mommy’s eyebrows are shooting dangerously close to her sheitel. I zip it.

“And if all that weren’t enough, do you know that her mother, who grew up in Kentucky, has a sister who isn’t frum? Her name is Kim and she’s a pilot with American Airlines!”

“Would Delta have been any better?” I ask.

“Avigdor!” Mommy never screams, but when her voice gets squeaky you know you’d better watch out. “This is your future we’re talking about. Marriage is forever! How can you marry a girl from a family like this?”

I look at my watch. “Ma, my date is starting in twelve minutes. I am not going to back out on her when she’s putting on her lip gloss. It would make her feel horrible, and it’s just not fair. Can we discuss this when I get home?” Ma is silent so I offer my final parry. “I’m sure Tatty would agree that this is what we should do.”

Mommy stands up and walks to the door. She turns around when she’s halfway out of the room. “You can go on this date, but keep it very pareve. This is not going to happen.”

***

I wasn’t trying to keep it pareve, but that’s the way it ended up. I was chalishing to ask Tali about the foster kid they have, but I wasn’t sure if it would be awkward for her. She said something about being tired because she had “needed to help her mother a lot in the past few days,” but didn’t take it any further.

So for two long hours we spoke about nothing.

I dropped her off, and she said, “Thank you so much, I had a lovely time.” I nearly said, “Did you really?” but caught myself just in time. Potter’s Corner closes at six, and I had already davened Maariv so I had no excuse not to head home.

I walked into the kitchen, hoping to find some leftover chicken nuggets from supper. Instead I found both my parents sitting at the kitchen table, untouched cups of tea in front of them. They both looked up as I came in.

“So how did it go, Avigdor?” Tatty asked in a too-cheerful voice.

“It was fine,” I said, trying to figure out where this was going.

“Do you want to meet her again?”

“Ummm…” I glanced at Mommy. She looked down. Tatty caught both looks.

“Avigdor, Mommy and I have been discussing this. The Lewins are a wonderful family. The fact that they give their son the help he needs and take in foster kids makes them more wonderful, not less so.” Tatty’s voice was low and firm. “And an aunt off the derech? It’s always tragic when a Yid loses his way, but we don’t reject a girl because of her aunt’s choices.”

Mommy was still looking down, tracing the pattern of the fleishig tablecloth as though her life depended on it.

“If you want to continue dating Tali, you can do it with our blessings,” Tatty concluded.

Great. Just great. I have their blessings — or at least Tatty’s blessings — but the thought of sitting across from Tali watching her take tiny sips of Diet Sprite for the next 50 years makes me feel panicky. Even if it eventually becomes big gulps of orange juice.

And yet, I have a sense that there’s someone inside her that I’d want to meet. But she isn’t showing me that someone. This is making me crazy.

I take the easy way out. “I appreciate that,” I tell Tatty, “but it won’t be necessary. I just don’t think this is going to work.”

Relief washes over Mommy’s face. Disappointment over Tatty’s. I bolt.

 

Tali

I

knew he’d say no.

Mommy looks sad when she passes on the message from the shadchan: “He really likes you, he just doesn’t think you’re right for each other,” which is shadchan talk for “He doesn’t like you at all, and doesn’t think you’d be right for anyone.”

The next few days pass in a haze of dull misery. I need to get away for a few hours, to think, but Daniel gobbles up most of our energy. He’s filled with rage, a bubbling cauldron that explodes at the slightest provocation.

I come home from work each day to find Mommy at her wit’s end and the house in shambles. I usually convince Daniel to go out with me. We drive to the park and toss a ball, hard. Or we run on the shady path around the perimeter of the park. We run and run until our sides ache and our breath comes in short spurts. Then we flop down and just sit. It’s the only time Daniel is calm.

Today, I come home to find the house empty. A note tells me that Mommy’s taken Daniel shopping. Finally, my chance to escape. I haven’t been to Potter’s Corner in months. But now, I need it so badly. I need to take an ugly lump of clay and turn it into something beautiful. I need to transform sludge into a vase or dish that will be delicate, yet strong and firm.

I park haphazardly, pound up the flight of stairs leading to the entrance. I burst through the door. And find myself assaulted with the noise of a dozen tweens hogging every single pottery wheel in the place.

What are they doing here on a Tuesday afternoon?

I take a second glance. A bunch of them are sporting micro-kippahs, little circles so small the bobby pin goes almost across the whole thing. And they’re singing some camp song.

Then I see something that makes my heart sink even lower. There are three yeshivish counselors with these kids.

One of them is Avigdor Waks.

He sees me a minute after I spot him. For a moment, it looks like he’s going to turn away and ignore me, but instead he comes over.

“You know how to make pottery?” he asks, as though he didn’t just tell the shadchan last week that he never wants to see me again.

I nod, not trusting myself to speak.

“Look,” he says, “I know this is mega awkward, but we’re having this camp reunion for our kiruv camp from Minnesota—”

“Minnesota? You worked in a kiruv camp in Minnesota?”

“Yeah. I know, it wasn’t on the r?sum?… Anyway, these kids barely know they’re Jewish, and we wanted them to see what frum life is like in action. They just got in yesterday. We took them to Landau’s for Shacharis, that totally blew them away. And they’re supposed to go a yeshivah and get a brachah from a gadol tonight.

“But we can’t totally overwhelm them, so I suggested we do this in between. We asked Potter’s Corner to have more staff members on hand to help the kids out, but one of them called in sick and the closest the other counselors have gotten to clay is the Play-Doh cookies they made when they were five. So, um, do you think, maybe…”

If I were 12, not 22, I’d take a piece of clay and throw it at the guy. Who does he think he is? I’m not good enough for him to date, but when it comes to his good deed of the day, suddenly he wants my help. I open my mouth to tell him exactly what I think, but suddenly I feel a half dozen pairs of eyes of me.

That’s all these kids need to see: how two Orthodox Jews undate each other. So I take a very deep breath, give him a twisted smile and say, “Sure, I’d love to help these kids make nice stuff.” Then I walk as far away from him as I can possibly get. A minute later I’m sitting with Jared, showing him how to put a little pressure on his vase, but not too much, or it will collapse.

For the next hour, all I see is gray clay and fumbling hands. I demonstrate and guide and encourage. The kiln is filled with misshapen vases. Then it’s time for the kids to leave for their next activity.

The place clears out. I sag against the wall. But one person says behind.

“The other counselors said they can manage the evening program by themselves,” Avigdor say. “I thought maybe we could make our own vases. Or plates. Or whatever.”

“Is this a date?” I ask him tightly. “Because as far as I know, I didn’t make the grade. I wasn’t good enough for Top Bochur of Brisk and Lakewood. And I don’t hang out with guys if we’re not actually considering marrying each other.”

“Hey,” he says, “don’t get so prickly. This wasn’t about making the grade, for heaven’s sake. I just didn’t feel like I was able to get to know you, you were kind of… frozen. Goodness knows, I tried. I gave you three dates, and—”

“Yay for Mr. Middos. He gave Frozen three full dates. Three strikes and you’re out. If you’re not a perfect dater, and, of course, a perfect person, then you’re out. Well, just for your information, I’m not perfect. And my family is even more imperfect. So you may as well go back to your campers and leave me alone.”

I try to sweep out of the room. I have to get out of here, to go back home to Mommy and Daddy, to Tzvi and Daniel too, to a place where people can be genuine. But there are pottery wheels all over, and I can’t get out gracefully.

He follows me. “I know,” he tells me. “I know all about your family. And it’s fine with me. Really. It could be that my mother—” He stops short, looks flustered.

“She can’t stand me, right?” I say, sick from the growing realization. “This isn’t the family she wants her son marrying into. What if my brother acted weird at the vort? What if we had a foster kid around during sheva brachos?”

“It would be hard for her,” he says in a very low voice. “And that makes me sad. But my father would be thrilled if I joined a family like yours.” He bites his lip and suddenly I see something vulnerable beneath the smooth exterior. “And I’m not willing to live like this anymore. I’m sick of always being told to look over my shoulder, to watch out for what other people will say or think. Who cares? I want to make the decisions that are real. And something tells me that you know how to do that, once you stop sipping Diet Sprite.”

“Real comes with a price tag,” I tell him. “Real means people talk about you and don’t want to date you and you have to fight tooth and nail to get the things other people have handed to them. And just for the record, I don’t even like Diet Sprite. But it’s the only drink that won’t stain if it spills.”

“Isn’t part of being real dealing with spills and stains?” he asks.

I want to tell him that it’s easy for him to talk; he has a family that cleans up the spills before they ever set into stains. But I stop.

“You’re right,” I say, “in theory. It’s hard in real life.”

We’re silent for a minute, and all I hear is the roar of the kiln and the steady whirr of a pottery wheel at the other end of the room.

“Want to tell me about it?” he asks.

I think for a long minute, then sit down by the pottery wheel to my left. He slides behind the one across from me. We each reach for a lump of clay. And we finally meet.

 

(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Succos 5776)

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