by shukyou (主教)
Eventually, his parents had talked Lemuel down to only two Transformers figures, and those he would carry in his pockets instead of his hands. Asher had not been there for the negotiations, but Lemuel recounted them in great detail in the car, several times over. “My pockets, not my hands, Uncle Asher,” Lemuel said for about the twenty millionth time.
“That’s a good plan, buddy,” Asher said with a knowing nod. “Hey, why don’t you tell me some facts about Sierra Leone?”
African countries were Lemuel’s newest area of geographic interest, and Asher knew Lemuel prided himself in particular about knowing all the small ones. He was on to reciting facts about the economics of bauxite production by the time they pulled up in front of the building. Asher double-checked the address, but figured the star balloons tied to the mailbox were a good indicator that this was the place. After parking and double-checking that all Transformers were parked in the agreed-upon spots, he helped Asher unfasten his seatbelt and escorted him in.
The man who greeted them at the door was unfamiliar to Asher, but Lemuel looked him in the eye the way he never did with strangers. “Hello, Rick,” said Lemuel, making the bold move of holding out his hand for a handshake.
Their greeter, identified now as Rick, took Asher’s hand for a genial but brief shake. “Lemuel, I’m glad you could come.”
Lemuel pointed to Asher without looking at him. “This is my uncle Asher Cohen. He is pleased to meet you.”
“I am,” Asher promised with a smile, extending his own hand. “Thanks for inviting us.”
“Rick Brown, nice to meet you too.” Rick’s grasp was firm and he had the kind of warm, open expression that came naturally, and not after years of behavioral therapy. “And hey, we’re glad you could make it. Welcome to our home.”
The apartment was already a cozy space, made even cozier by how they were far from the first ones to arrive. (The invitation had been cordial yet firm in saying that all festivities would be from 6PM to 7PM exactly, and though they’d gotten there twenty minutes late, Asher knew from experience that the more important bound was the latter one.) The walls were plastered with posters, half from documentary television shows, half about space. Taped-up sheets of inkjet paper across the living room wall formed the words HAPPY 23rd BIRTHDAY ISAAC.
And there was the birthday boy himself, sitting on the couch with a paper crown on his head and talking to Sarah, one of the others from his and Lemuel’s occupational therapy group. “You could go say hello if you want to,” Asher said, pointing Lemuel in that direction. Lemuel nodded and went to do so.
Keeping eye on his nephew, Asher walked over to the table where refreshments had been set up. There was a chocolate sheet cake there, already cut into slices and with no sign of candles anywhere. That made Asher smile; he couldn’t imagine any of Lemuel’s friends would be a big fan of having a whole room sing at them. Despite its having been divided into squares, the image on top of the cake was still clearly a photograph of Pluto that Asher recognized from recent news stories. In keeping with the interstellar theme everywhere else, Asher supposed.
His brother and sister-in-law were always grateful for Asher’s being willing to take Lemuel places, though in fact Lemuel was a great wingman at gatherings. He had all the social graces memorized, he provided Asher a ready reason to excuse himself from any conversation, and by the time Lemuel was critically overstimulated and ready to go, Asher pretty much was too. And sometimes there was cake. Sometimes there was very good cake, in fact, Asher thought as he wondered how many more pieces of this he could take and consume before it became awkward.
He heard a small moan from over his shoulder and turned just in time to see a tall man with a mop of curly hair make an orgasmic face as he pulled a fork from his mouth. “That’s good,” he added with a laugh as he saw Asher looking at him.
“It is,” Asher agreed, smiling back. “I was considering smuggling some out in my pockets.”
“I’d cover you.” The man took another bite and made the same lovely face. He had pretty features, delicate and sharp, and smooth in the way where he might have been Asher’s age or half it, with no way to tell; his only lines were laugh lines, and he barely stopped smiling long enough for them to be seen. “Though your dry-cleaner might not. Anyway, pleased to meet you, fellow cake-lover. I’m Dov.”
“Asher.” Balancing the cake and fork in his left hand, Asher extended his right to shake Dov’s in greeting.
Dov gave a knowing little nod. “Asher, huh? With kids I sometimes have to play the Jewish-or-just-hipster game, but you look to predate that phenomenon.”
Asher chuckled as he ran his fingers across his hair, which had in very recent memory started thinning. “Me and my three older brothers, Solomon, Ephraim, and Mordechai.”
“Wow,” said Dov, though when he laughed, it was kind. Asher supposed a man named ‘Dov’ would understand.
“Also my nephew Lemuel,” Asher added, pointing over to the couch. Cards had come out, and Sarah appeared to be patiently instructing Isaac, Rick, and Lemuel on the rules. From where they were standing, Asher could see the neutral but pleasant expression Lemuel wore when he was too interested in something to remember to smile. From that same angle, they could also see the worn satin kippah that eclipsed Lemuel’s chestnut hair. Today’s was summer-sky blue.
Dov nodded and smiled. “Got it. So is that your connection to all this?”
“Sure is. Yours?”
“Oh, I’ve known Isaac since he was about this big.” Dov put his hand at the level of his ribcage, which narrowed Asher’s estimate of his age considerably. “I work at the propulsion lab with Jenny,” he said, and when Asher frowned, trying to place the name, Dov added, “Isaac’s mom.”
“Propulsion like … rockets?” asked Asher.
“Like space rockets. Not kaboom rockets.” Dov made an exaggerated expression of worry. “At least, we hope they’re not kaboom rockets. I work very hard at my job to keep them from kaboom-ing.”
Asher chuckled, which won him a smile from Dov. He wasn’t vain enough to think that he was being flirted with, least of all at his nephew’s friend’s birthday party, but it was still nice to interact like that with such an attractive man, no matter the circumstances. It had almost been two years now since he and Roger had called it quits, leaving Asher a single thirtysomething gay man with frequent uncle-ing obligations and no idea how to conduct himself as a dateable adult. He hadn’t exactly learned much to that effect in the interim.
They talked a little more about the cake, a little more about Dov’s job, a little more about nothing in particular, in the way strangers at parties often did. But every time the conversation hit a lull and Asher became certain Dov would use it as an excuse to wander off, Dov found another question to ask or joke to make. Asher’s main goals became twofold: to make it seem like it hadn’t been months since he’d had a non-work or -family-related discussion with a grownup, and to keep subtle the fact that he kept staring at Dov’s beautiful lips. He wasn’t sure how well he was doing with either.
Even so, he felt an unfamiliar surge of disappointment as fingers wrapped around his, and he turned to see that Lemuel had taken his hand. “Uncle Asher,” Lemuel said with his usual flat affect, staring at Asher’s chest. “Uncle Asher, I think I would like now to be when we leave.”
Asher felt a nervous twinge; so often Lemuel’s directness came off to strangers as rude. But instead, Dov’s expression broke into a grin, first at Asher, and then at Lemuel. “You must be Lemuel. I’m Dov. It’s nice to meet you.” He didn’t extend his hand.
Lemuel turned to Dov, keeping his gaze at the same height, which landed his point of sight farther down Dov’s chest than on Asher’s. He took a deep breath and said, almost without pause, “Hello, Dov, it is very nice to meet you, Uncle Asher, I think I would like now to be when we leave.”
“You got it, kid,” said Asher, giving Lemuel’s hand a squeeze. “Can you go tell Isaac’s parents and Rick thank you for inviting us?”
Lemuel gave a quick nod before heading off to do just that. Solomon and Rivka were always concerned about Lemuel’s having proper manners, and Asher had few problems enforcing that one, considering that not only was he their son, he found most social pleasantries were rote and perfunctory anyway, regardless of how typical one’s neuro was. It was the fact that someone had thought to say them at all that counted.
Dov grabbed his phone out of his pocket and glanced at the lock screen. “Yeah, sunset’s in, what, an hour?”
Most people didn’t think to look. You could explain it to them, of course, and most would get it as soon as you started; this was Baltimore, after all, and you couldn’t find too many Gentiles who’d had zero experience in their lives dealing with observant Jews. But only another Jew would know to look at the clock on a Friday afternoon and calculate when the day would be done.
“Not … I mean,” sputtered Asher, trying to figure out a way to explain that didn’t involve his whole life story and then some. “Yes, about an hour and a half. But that’s not — there isn’t any — I don’t have anywhere to be.” Not anymore, he left unsaid.
“Oh!” Dov’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Asher could follow his train of thought, from the exceedingly (and somewhat obscure) biblical family names to the kippah Lemuel refused to be without, and didn’t blame him for the conclusion drawn. It wasn’t the fault of his math that not every element of consequence was visible. “So no plans tonight?”
Asher shook his head. “Besides taking Lemuel home, no.”
Dov grinned. “Then you should come over and Shabbat with us!” When Asher didn’t quite know how to respond to the offer, including the apparent verbing of ‘Shabbat’, Dov chuckled. “There’s about a dozen of us who get together for dinner on Friday nights. Started it in grad school and just sort of kept going, picking up and losing people along the way. Jews, half-Jews, Jew-in-laws, really cute shiksas. Sort of a Loser’s Sabbath, kind of. It’s even at my house tonight, which is great because it means all I have to do is set the plates, wash the dishes, and remember to return everyone’s Tupperware. If you’re up for it, we’d love to have a new face at the table.”
No, further explanation still didn’t give Asher a clear way to process the opportunity. An invitation to a traditional service, he would likely have refused outright, but this? This sounded close enough yet far enough away at the same time that maybe…. “Okay,” said Asher with what he hoped was a casual tone. “I mean, I can’t promise I won’t need to keep an eye on Lem instead, but — you’re sure it won’t be weird having a random guy you met at a party there?”
That made Dov cackle as he stretched out his hand. “Give me your phone,” he said, and Asher complied. Dov’s spindly fingers tapped and swiped their way across the screen with near-balletic grace. “I am texting myself the address from your phone, so that way–” Dov’s pocket buzzed and he grinned, giving Asher back his own device. “You know where to go, you know how to call me if you can’t figure out how to get there, and I know who you are if you call. And if you can’t on short notice, there’s always the next one in two weeks.”
“Okay.” Feeling a bit stunned, nonetheless Asher couldn’t help smiling. “Okay, thank you. Should I … I don’t know, bring anything?”
“You want to bring the wine, go ahead. Well, not the wine. If you don’t make it, we’ll still have wine. But some wine, and when it gets there, it will become part of the wine. Fair?”
Asher found something relentlessly endearing about Dov’s persistent enthusiasm. He felt almost herded, as though some small, efficient dog were nipping at his heels, urging him to some desired outcome. “Okay,” he said as Lemuel came back to his side. “I’ll try. I’d like to.”
“Awesome!” Dov gave him a thumbs-up, then waved at Lemuel. “Nice meeting you both.”
“It was nice meeting you, Dov,” said Lemuel, whose voice had flattened to a near-robotic cadence. Poor kid, he looked like he was at the limits of his social interactivity for today. But Asher knew the fact that he’d stayed so long before asking to leave meant Lemuel had been having a good time, and for that, he was glad.
Two minutes after the car started, Lemuel was sound asleep in the passenger seat. The Transformer toys bulged from inside his pockets where, as far as Asher could tell, they’d stayed the whole time. Lemuel staggered zombie-like up the walk to his Bethesda home, gave Asher a thank-you hug and kiss at his mother’s direction, then went to fall asleep on his favorite couch. “Love you, buddy,” Asher called after him. Lemuel mumbled something from the pillows. The words were lost, but the sentiment could still be heard.
Back in the car, Asher sat with the key unturned in the ignition for several minutes. He focused on his breathing and let his thoughts clear, pushing aside worries and what-ifs until his brain came back to equilibrium. Then he started the car, and as he drove off, he wasn’t too surprised to find himself pointed in the direction of the nearest wine store. Well, that answered that question.
“Come in!” came the shouted response to Asher’s knock, so Asher did as instructed.
He was somewhat ashamed to admit that the first person he saw inside gave him pause, enough to wonder if he’d stepped into the wrong apartment entirely: a dapper black man with a baby harness slung across his chest, complete with complaining baby inside. The man looked at Asher and frowned, as though trying to place his face, and Asher frowned right back, wondering how much of a burglar he looked like with a bottle of Manischewitz in each hand.
Then a woman with wild curly red hair peeked around the corner and grinned. “Bet you’re Asher!” she said, coming over to take the bottles from his hands.
Asher gave them up, glad to be expected. “I am,” he said, wondering if he should have confirmed that before giving up the alcohol.
“I’m Chava,” she said, nodding for him to follow her. She pointed to the man with the baby as they walked by. “That’s my boyfriend Muhammad, and that fussing you hear is Madison waking up. We’re so glad you’re here! My brother said we might need an extra seat.”
With hair like hers, there was little mystery as to who her brother might be, especially as Asher turned the corner to see Dov with a stack of plates in his hands. Dov was already smiling at his guests, but his face out-and-out lit up when he saw Asher. “Hey!” He glanced around to make sure he had everyone’s attention, then looked in Asher’s direction. “He made it! Everybody, this is Asher, the guy I was telling you about. Asher, this is everybody.”
Everybody looked to be eight people he didn’t know, Dov with the plates, Chava opening the wine, Muhammad taking the seat closest to a high chair, and a potluck’s worth of assorted food on the long table in the midst of them. There was one untouched place setting, and it was right by the seat where Dov was standing. Chava nudged Asher toward it as the guests waved and made their various greetings. Names were given, but Asher hoped they’d be given again, because his poor brain was already struggling under the weight of so much new information. It was pretty overwhelming being here, being welcomed into this comfortable chaos of laughter and friendship.
The meal, it turned out, wasn’t a traditional Sabbath happening at all, save for the fact that it started around sunset and nobody was going home hungry, not with that many good-smelling dishes for the having. There were no candles lit, there was no challah to be seen, and the only prayer anyone seemed to offer was Dov’s holding his hands open theatrically over the spread before them and telling everyone, “Dig in!” But as blessings went, Asher found that one remarkably efficient.
As he was about to take one of the rolls from the bread basket passed to him, Asher heard someone ask, “What kind of wine is this?” He looked across the table to see that the question had come from a butch woman with short, spiky hair.
The heavyset woman next to her snorted so hard into her own glass she choked a little. “Oh my God, Eun,” she said, mostly into her napkin, “how have we been together for two years and you don’t know Manischewitz?”
“It’s kosher wine,” Dov explained to her over a bowl of salad. “Which means it’s got a pretty niche appeal.”
Asher tried to keep his spine straight, even though his apparent faux pas made him want most to slide from his seat and hide under the table. Even with Dov’s earlier characterization of the group likely to be in attendance, it had never crossed Asher’s mind to bring anything but kosher wine to a Sabbath gathering. “Old habits, I guess?” He gave an apologetic shrug, wondering how soon would be too awkwardly soon to make an exit.
“This is one of those things that’s just … my whole childhood in a horrible glass,” said a tall bald man down at the other end of the table. He took one look at Asher’s face, though, and put an apologetic hand to his chest. “Oh no, honey, that sounded awful, I’m so sorry. I mean, I love it! I don’t like it, but I love it! I haven’t had it in years. Sky-high nostalgia value. Takes me back to my days of Hebrew school and High Holidays at my grandparents’ temple.”
“What do you mean, you don’t like it?” Eun took another sip. “It tastes great! It’s kind of like … really angry grape juice.”
That observation brought the house down, cutting even through Asher’s nervousness so deftly that he laughed until tears started to sting his eyes. Maybe he hadn’t quite understood beforehand what he was getting himself into, but the more everyone went on together, the more it seemed that didn’t matter. A place where nobody quite fit in right was a good place to be.
Because he’d never minded the chore, nor lived anywhere with a dishwasher worth its salt, Asher was the first at the sink at the meal’s conclusion, up to his elbows in soapy water. As such, he got several personal goodbyes from his fellow diners — all of whom made sure to extract promises from him to return — but lost his sense of just how many people were still around until he heard the door shut one last time, followed by a curious silence in the apartment. Last invited, last to arrive, last to leave.
He turned a minute later to see Dov leaning against the kitchen doorframe. “I’d say you don’t have to do that, but it seems you’ve already done it,” he said with a tired but happy smile.
Asher gave a casserole tray one final scrub before abandoning it to the soapy water; it had contained the scalloped potatoes, so some soaking would do it good. “That was worth more than two bottles of wine.”
Dov handed him a clean dish towel from over the oven handle, and Asher patted his forearms dry. “Sorry if I gave the impression this was going to be a little more Jew-ish,” he said, leaving a beat between the halves of the word. “It used to be, a little more, but our most observant friend got a job in Milwaukee a couple years back, and without her, it sort of went in this direction. But hey, all the food’s still at least basically kosher! I mean, as kosher as homemade can get from a bunch of people who can’t afford housing with two whole kitchens.”
“No, it’s–” Asher found himself blushing, then staring at his hands to try and hide the fact that he was blushing. He suspected it wasn’t working. “It was great. It was really great.”
“So you’re on for the next one? Two weeks, Ruth and Eun’s place.”
Eun had in fact threatened sweetly to track him down if he didn’t show up and bring more angry grape juice. “I think I’m expected, yeah.” A glance at the clock over the stove told Asher it was half past ten; he couldn’t believe he’d arrived well over two hours previous. No wonder he was feeling so tired. And full, definitely full.
And maybe a little drunk on top of that, too, which was why he was able to take the step that crossed the distance between him and Dov. If everything failed, he thought, he could just pass it off as going in for a friendly hug, exactly the type two modern, sensitive guys would share. As such, the whole motion was plausibly deniable right up until the moment he turned his chin upward and found Dov’s mouth there waiting for him.
It was a good kiss, and not even only by the standards of a man who hadn’t done any kissing in a long time. Dov’s mouth was warm and open, and he wasn’t just letting himself be kissed, he was kissing back. His long arms were around Asher’s waist and his lovely fingers were pulling Asher’s shirt out from where he’d tucked it into his slacks, searching until they found bare skin. He tasted good, like spices and wine and the taste of his own mouth beneath it, that Asher knew he was stupid to be falling into bed with a man he’d met only hours previous and he patently did not care.
Asher’s hands reached upward to touch the sides of Dov’s face; he felt the shadow of stubble there and slid his hands upward into Dov’s hair. It was even softer than it had looked, and it seemed to wind around Asher’s fingers of its own volition, holding him there. With a grin that Asher could feel more than see, Dov turned them so that they were up against a wall, with Asher’s body caught between.
“This is fast,” murmured Asher against Dov’s mouth.
Dov’s hands stilled against Asher’s back, pressing instead of caressing. “Too-fast fast?”
Maybe, Asher knew. But then again, if he factored in all the time spent since the last time this had happened to him, it really wasn’t fast enough. He shook his head and went back to kissing Dov, letting his tongue part Dov’s lips as he pulled Dov as close as he could, pinning himself. Dov’s knee found its way between Asher’s thighs, and Asher was truly and delightfully trapped.
They made out for a few hours that way, or maybe only a few minutes. Time was relative, as another Jew had once said. If right now could be tonight and tomorrow at once, anything was possible.
“Come on,” Dov said at last, pulling back and taking both of Asher’s hands in both of his. “I’ve got a better place for this.”
The trek across the apartment was one Dov made backward, pulling Asher all the way, while Asher tried to tell Dov as soon as he could which way to weave to avoid the furniture. Unfortunately for Dov, Asher was still drunk enough that he couldn’t reliably remember on short notice that his right was Dov’s left, and vice versa, so many things wound up being crashed into. By the time they made it through the bedroom door, Dov had almost knocked over two different lamps, and they both had tears of laughter streaming down their faces. Asher was even worried that he might not be able to stop laughing; then Dov was kissing him again, and Asher wasn’t worried about anything anymore.
They fell onto the bed in a tangle of limbs and sheets. Dov’s hands were at Asher’s belt soon after, and Asher’s pants not long after that were on the floor. Asher felt fleetingly self-conscious for a moment about having his soft belly exposed, but Dov seemed only too happy to get his mouth on it, kissing and biting at the pale skin there until Asher was giggling again with ticklish delight.
He felt all of twenty-four again, the age he’d been when he’d finally been bold enough to take his desire for other men to its logical conclusion, only this time without the anxiety of a decade previous. He had forgotten how this all worked for lack of practice, but Dov seemed a good and patient teacher. He kissed his way around the waistband of Asher’s briefs before tugging them down and making a face of comical surprise as Asher’s dick popped alertly upright. “Why, hello,” said Dov with a grin.
“Hi,” Asher replied, breathless. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“I know, right?” Dov blew a stream of air over the tip of Asher’s cock, chuckling as it jerked at the sensation. “So hey, fun fact about me, I hate giving head through latex, so … if going bare’s the too-fast part of that fast, say the word.”
Asher didn’t want to say the word. He wanted to be cool with it, especially because Dov’s lips were so pretty and the idea of having them around his cock was kind of making his head spin. But growing up closeted in the age of AIDS had instilled him with several deep anxieties, some harder to rid himself of than others. “Um,” Asher said, trying to work out a polite refusal while at the same time being aware that no one in his right mind would have refused this.
But the silence seemed to be all Dov needed. He gave Asher’s bare hip a kiss, then pulled himself up until he was face-to-face and toe-to-toe with Asher again. It was only when Asher reached for his hip that he realized Dov’s pants hadn’t made the journey with him. Neat trick. “This is good too,” Dov said against Asher’s lips. “This is all really good.”
“It’s been a while,” Asher admitted with a sigh.
“It’s okay. Like falling off a bicycle. You never forget.” Dov gave him a wink, which made Asher smile again. Those pretty, clever fingers worked their way up and down the curve of Asher’s hip, approaching but never quite reaching his cock. “But if you don’t want–”
“No, I want.” Asher swallowed, then took a deep breath and brought his own hand down to Dov’s cock. His fingers found a bead of precome at the tip and smeared it over as he slicked his hand down — and whatever nervousness he’d felt melted away as Dov’s eyelids fluttered. “I want a lot.”
“Me too,” Dov moaned. “Just … keep doing that.”
Asher did as instructed. He was at least good at following directions.
At last Dov’s hand finally made it to Asher’s erection, and Asher gasped as those lovely nimble fingers touched him. The backs of his knuckles brushed against Dov’s as they continued to stroke one another, in and out of rhythm. It was a funny sort of pleasant laziness, just hands and mirrored bodies and mouths that had given up on the mechanics of kissing as attention was diverted elsewhere. They were still close, though, and Asher could feel the heat of Dov’s breath against his own mouth. There was no rush, no need for showing off or undue athleticism here. It was just gentle, and Asher hadn’t known how much he’d needed gentle until he was wrapped inside of it.
To Asher’s surprise, Dov came first, gasping almost without sound as his hips stilled and his seed flooded Asher’s hand. As soon as he regained his breath, Asher started kissing him again, planting little pecks against those beautiful lips, which had captivated him from the start. There was always something near-miraculous about beholding the unattainable and then finding it lying next to you only a few hours later, and Asher wasn’t going to take that for granted.
Dov smiled after a moment and started to kiss back, sucking at Asher’s lower lip with a promising tease. Slick with his own come, his hand moved faster now up Asher’s cock. The hazy drunken fog that still hung over his brain helped Asher relax into the touch, get comfortable in Dov’s embrace. It was a good place to be, it was a good way to be, and he hadn’t felt like this in so long that he didn’t want to rush it, for fear this might be all he got.
He couldn’t put off his body’s needs forever, though; no matter how much he loved the journey, it needed its conclusion. “Faster, please,” he gasped, and Dov was only happy to comply, increasing the speed and friction of his strokes. Not long after that, Asher gave in to his own orgasm, closing his eyes and letting it rush out of him.
As Asher came fuzzily back into awareness, Dov gave him a quick, strong kiss and then rolled out of bed. He returned a few seconds later with a hand towel, which he used to wipe them both clean. Then he stretched his arm out across the pillow, inviting Asher to curl up against him. As with all of Dov’s other instructions, it was impossible to refuse.
Asher draped an arm across Dov’s waist and shut his eyes, breathing in the scent of Dov’s skin. It was a good, clean smell, not drowned under perfumes or any of the other awful things men sometimes liked to put on their bodies. He had freckles, too, little sprays of brown marks that dotted the pale skin of his chest and belly like stars. Dov was a scientist; surely he would understand if Asher wanted to spend hours there, tracing out new constellations, mapping out the universe captured on skin.
But alas, as much as he wanted to set up a permanent residence right here, in Dov’s bed, with his head on Dov’s bare chest, he hadn’t prepared for this kind of sleepover, and the evening before was much preferable to the morning after in terms of managing that. “I should go,” Asher said with a sigh. He brushed the backs of his knuckles along the line of Dov’s jaw, smiling as he felt the start of stubble prickle against his skin. “I didn’t exactly come with a bag packed with with my toothbrush and tefillin.”
Dov snorted out a laugh. “Tefillin, that’s a good one.”
And just like that, Asher saw the whole evening for what it had been: a mistake.
He could see in Dov’s face that Dov could see in his face that he had fucked up, though he could also see Dov couldn’t tell quite why he had fucked up, which softened Asher’s heart toward the situation. Still, that didn’t make things between them less of a bad idea. Asher put on a big smile and gave Dov a deep, tender kiss, memorizing the taste and shape of the encounter even as he resigned himself to its being their last. “Thank you for sharing your meal, and your friends. And your bed.”
“Of course.” Dov wasn’t smiling now, though; a little dagger of worry had stabbed the pale skin between his eyebrows. “Hey, I’ll see you soon, right? Two weeks, if not before?”
“Right,” Asher said as he pulled on his pants. Two weeks was a long time. Time enough to find an excuse and then a way out of an obligation. Time enough to be forgotten.
He felt like such a child, like a literal whiny toddler, but the second he got behind the wheel of his car and shut the door behind him, Asher burst into tears. He leaned his head against the steering wheel and let himself sob, biting back sound even as he let the tears flow. Self-indulgence and self-pity settled around him like a cloak, and he did not push them away. Things were bad enough on their own, but he had let himself be optimistic, and he should have been old enough by now to know about the mistake of hope.
He had been through this with Roger, had watched for six years as curious, honest fascination had turned into gentle ribbing, which had turned into sincere jest, which had turned into utter contempt for practices Roger called ‘useless’ and ‘primitive’. Asher had turned spiteful to match, and by the time he’d finally packed his things and left, it hadn’t been because he didn’t love Roger anymore. He had just finally become unable to live with how much he hated himself when they were together. Truth be told, he still couldn’t say which one of them had been more relieved, and that was even worse than sorrow. Sorrow, he would have gotten over by now; relief only called to its brother guilt, which still gnawed on Asher’s bones.
Maybe he’d thought it might be different with a Jew this time? But Dov wasn’t a Jew, Asher thought, wiping his face with a fast-food napkin. He was, but he wasn’t. He was Jew-ish, what happened when tradition became culture and community became isolation. He was what Asher himself was in danger of every day. Of course to Dov tefillin were a joke, like hearing someone say they drove a buggy or wore a toga. And the distance between thinking that to thinking that Asher himself was a joke wasn’t far to walk at all.
He didn’t count the Sabbath prohibitions he was about to break by starting the car and driving to his home nearly ten miles away. Some transgressions, one simply had to live with.
After a few hours of tossing and turning that passed for sleep, Asher got his telescope and went up to the roof an hour an hour before dawn by anyone’s reckoning. He didn’t much care for his apartment building, and he hated its proximity to the Inner Harbor’s light pollution, but he wouldn’t trade its roof access for the world.
It was the new moon tonight, so he knew without that night-ruling lesser light, he could count on at least a little more darkness than usual. Venus and Mars would both be on the horizon, but he had low expectations of seeing either. Instead he turned to the stars higher above him, finding the brightest ones with his eyes before locating them with his telescope. It was a cheap thing, old even by the time he’d bought it as a teenager, but it could focus sharp enough to see the flat discs of planets and the bright gems of stars. Plus, it had no electronic parts.
There was something comforting about that great stellar vastness. So much of the light he saw now had been created long before he was born, and so much of the light that was being created now would only reach Earth long after his death. In the cosmic scheme of things, falling into bed with the wrong man didn’t so much matter. In the cosmic scheme of things.
At 5:22, his phone chirped. He sighed and reached into the pocket of his cardigan, pulling out the black straps and small boxes. He rubbed one of the soft straps between his thumb and forefinger, feeling both the leather and the way it moved around the parchment housed inside. Bits at the edges were fraying and fading, and Asher smiled a bitter smile to think what his late father would have to say about that negligence. Then again, he suspected that after fifteen years of silence, that would have been somewhere far down the old man’s list of grievances with his youngest son’s life.
“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam,” he recited quietly to himself as he held the hand tefillin to the bicep of his left arm, “asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu l’hani’ach t’filin.”
As he wound the strap tighter around his arm, he willed away the feelings of self-conscious awkwardness that bubbled up in light of last night’s confrontation with Dov. No, he had vowed after Roger to stop feeling ashamed about this, and he was going to keep that promise to himself.
Of course the Almighty wasn’t listening. Only a fool would think HaShem would take time out of His busy schedule to peer in like some overbearing supervisor and make sure that His children were obeying the aforementioned commandment to put on tefillin. That wasn’t the point, that someone might see and reward you for your obedience, or punish you for your transgressions. The righteous man did the right thing regardless of the possibility of reward or even acknowledgment, and that was what made his actions truly righteous.
Not that Asher was feeling even vaguely righteous today. But that didn’t matter. If the stars still shone down after millions of years regardless of who might see them, then he could do this simple thing. He placed the head tefillin on the front of his head, just where his hairline was starting its retreat, wrapped his finger and hand, and covered his eyes. “Sh’ma Yisrael,” he began, intoning his way through all the prayers and rituals, binding those commandments to his body and then releasing himself as the sky over his head turned into morning.
That done, he wound up the straps and boxes again, picked up his telescope, walked back down the three flights of stairs to his apartment, and passed out face-down on his bed.
When he woke again, it was nearly noon. Maybe the Sabbath wasn’t intended for catching up on sleep, but Asher sure did feel good when it facilitated doing so. He stretched and groaned, resigned himself to adding a shower to his list of work-related transgressions, then spent twenty minutes in there, letting the pound of the hot water lull him into a meditative coma. Everything was going to be all right.
He spent what was left of the day eating cold food and reading, as he’d spent most Saturdays as a child. That he was eating leftover pizza and reading a Tom Wolfe novel didn’t count against the actions in any way; they were simply variations on the acceptable, or so he had made them in order to live with them. Few things in the world did not come down to rationalizing and negotiations.
He couldn’t tell whether or not he was surprised when his phone rang a few minutes after sundown and the name Dov (from the party) Teplitsky appeared on the screen. Before he’d really made the conscious decision to do so, he was pressing the screen to answer. “Hello?” He kept his tone neutral, not wanting to assume anything.
“Hey, Asher, it’s Dov,” said the voice from the other end of the line. Even through the connection, Asher could hear tension in Dov’s voice, which oddly enough made Asher relax. He wasn’t alone in this unfamiliar territory. “I would’ve called earlier, but I didn’t know if you’d be picking up before now.”
The conscious thoughtfulness shown in the gesture made Asher smile. “I probably would have,” Asher admitted, “but thanks. For waiting.”
“So.” There was a pause as Dov drew a deep breath. “This is me calling to say that I hated that last night ended on a note of me being an insensitive jerk. And to tell you I had a great time with you there last night, both at dinner and after. And to ask you if you would like to go out with me sometime on a real date.”
“Yes,” said Asher, before the rest of his common sense could shut up his eager mouth. Dammit, he felt like stapling his lips shut. He should at least have given that some thought, put a little uncertainty into the conversation, made himself seem a little less desperate. So much for negotiations. “I mean, I’d like that. If you would.” He swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, I–”
“Hey, no, no. It’s okay,” said Dov. “I just don’t always … I guess, know how to react to things, so I laugh and make a dick of myself. I am also supposed to tell you that Chava is pissed at me on your behalf, and that if you want me to be un-invited from the next dinner so you can attend and have it not be weird, just say the word.”
Asher couldn’t tell how much of a joke that was meant to be, and he didn’t quite feel comfortable testing the truth of it. “Is that what she said?”
“Pretty much verbatim, yeah. Plus some things about how I hogged all the toys as a kid and stole her favorite truck and Mom always liked her better anyway. So, you know, the usual.”
Asher chuckled despite himself. “Did she tell you to ask me on a date?”
“Nope. That was me.” Over the connection, Dov’s smile was audible. “Though there may have been some other stuff from her end about the only decent person I’ve been into in a long time, and my otherwise-terrible taste in romantic partners, and I … just realized I’m really not selling myself to the guy I’m trying to ask out, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead and bite the bullet: Are you doing anything tomorrow afternoon?”
This time, Asher’s eagerness was reined in, though not by common sense so much as by prior obligation. “Oh, I promised Lemuel we could go to the art museum.”
“Oh,” said Dov, obviously trying to cover his disappointment. “Well, hey, there’s always another–”
“You could come,” Asher added, then winced. He was really starting to take the self-stapling threat seriously. The cute guy did not want to walk Asher’s autistic nephew through the same mosaics gallery half a dozen times. When grownups said the word ‘date’, they usually meant something very different. Something less chaperone-y. Something normal.
All of which was why Asher was startled when Dov said, “I’d love to!” and sounded like he meant it.
“You would?” Asher asked before he could commit to being cool about it and playing off any surprise. “Because it’s … well, it can get … let’s say, repetitive.”
“I have been through the Air and Space Smithsonian with Isaac, like, thirty times,” Dov said with a laugh. “Or maybe it was just once and it felt like thirty times. My point is, if you’re trying to scare me off, you’re going to have to bring out guns bigger than a large museum and a young man with very focused interests.”
“I’m not trying to scare you off,” Asher promised. He looked out his east-facing window at the night sky. One, two, and there was the third star of the evening. The Sabbath was officially over. “I like you. A lot.”
“Even though I’m a jerk?” Even though Dov played it off like comedy, Asher could hear the sincere regret beneath the words. It was hard to fault a knee-jerk reaction, and HaShem knew well enough that Asher had made more than his fair share of cruel snap judgments. That most of them had never left his mouth didn’t absolve him of his responsibility to them.
“You’re not a jerk.” Asher sighed as he ran his hand across the back of his head. You’re just normal.
The conversation meandered to more specific plans, and then to other topics entirely, and the only reason Asher finally excused himself nearly two hours later was that he hadn’t eaten since lunch and really didn’t want to try holding down his end of a conversation with a mouth full of food. Even so, hanging up wasn’t easy. Dov was funny and engaging, and it had been so long since Asher had been able to just talk to someone. No one was discussing deadlines or pediatricians or the price of natural resources. Speaking of normal, it was the closest Asher had felt there in a long time.
“So is Lemuel your only nephew?”
The question caught Asher so off-guard that he actually stumbled to a halt on the path through the sculpture garden. Ahead of them, Lemuel didn’t notice or stop. He was too busy completing the circuit, checking off all items seen against the museum guidebook. He treated museum outings as scavenger hunts, with occasional pauses to admire specific pieces. Asher couldn’t tell what was special about those, and Lemuel wasn’t saying.
Dov’s grip on Asher’s hand tightened in the moments where it seemed Asher was falling. Somewhere around the Italian Renaissance, without comment, their fingers had found one another and twined together, something Asher couldn’t remember having happened since well before he and Roger even met. Definitely a date. “I’m sorry,” Dov said with a frown, “is that a complicated question?”
Asher sighed, wondering how to abridge this appropriately. “No, not my only one.” He turned the awkward misstep into an opportunity to sit on a nearby bench; Lemuel would be here for a while anyway. Still with his hand in Dov’s, Asher put on a brave smile. “So, uh, if you want to save the whole family drama thing for a later date…?”
“Only if you do.” Dov put their joined hands on top of Asher’s knee. Asher leaned against his shoulder, and Dov didn’t budge. He was a sturdy, steady man. Very good for leaning.
Lemuel had stopped in the middle of the path, staring at some large arrangement of twisted red sheets of metal. The other patrons moved politely around him, like a slow-moving stream correcting its course for the rocks in it. There were few places in life it was polite to just stop and stare, and many of those were museums of all stripes. Asher may not have known what interested Lemuel about particular pieces, but there was no question about why here was where Lemuel chose to return at almost every opportunity.
Lemuel had taken the news of Mr. Teplitsky’s accompanying them in typical Lem-like fashion for one of his good days, which was to say he’d hardly given any indication of having noticed. Asher had warned Dov there might be objections raised and dates rescheduled, depending on Lemuel’s mood, but Lemuel had only nodded when Asher had explained that they were stopping along the way to pick up a friend. A brief introductory inquiry on Lem’s part had revealed that Dov had once been to Morocco, which filled the rest of the drive with Morocco facts Dov seemed only too happy to entertain. Asher couldn’t have kept the hopeful grin from his face if he’d tried.
At last, Asher took a deep breath and began: “I have at least three other nephews that I’ve never met. Solomon’s the only one of my brothers I still speak to.”
“Oh,” said Dov, then, “oh. Is it the, um, gay thing?”
The simplicity of the logic startled Asher into a laugh. “No. At least, not entirely. That was never…. It was something I think everyone just assumed I’d get over. Including me. Ah, that youngest boy, a little feygele maybe, but not so he won’t be a good husband, a good father!” Asher found it impossible not to slip into an approximation of his father’s movie-thick accent as he condensed the kinds of discussions he’d overheard for years. “And then the day I turned fifteen, Lem was born, and he was just … perfect. Just this tiny human who needed so much care, but such simple care. I could do all of it. Lactating aside, but there were solutions to that too.”
Dov’s smile broadened. “Yeah, I thought for the longest time I didn’t like babies. Then Chava hands me this little ball of Madison and it’s just like, okay, you’re mine now and I’ll kill anything bad that touches you.”
“Exactly.” Asher smiled as he put his head against Dov’s shoulder. It was easier to talk like this, so close yet with a good excuse not to look at one another. Lemuel had gone back to his meanderings, reading from the guidebook and staring at the exhibitions. It was difficult to look at him now, twenty years old and still all gangly limbs, and think of how small he’d once been. “Which meant I was seventeen when he — when the doctors–” Asher cut himself off and took another deep, steadying breath. “Long story shorter, the rabbis said, sorry your first boy turned out broken, but you’ve still got a working womb, so toss him in a home and try again.”
“What the fuck,” said Dov, and though Asher couldn’t see his expression, it wasn’t hard to picture.
“Rivka exploded — that’s my brother’s wife,” Asher continued. He had still been in high school at the time, the youngest Cohen boy and the only one still unmarried, but he could remember the screaming fights with unfortunate clarity. “But my parents expected Solomon to be wise like his namesake, and to explain to her what was really best for her, by which they meant what was best for the family reputation. And he didn’t.”
“A shocking twist on the original story,” Dov said, which made Asher turn to him in puzzlement. “I mean, that he didn’t cut the baby.”
Despite the sting the memories left, Asher smiled. “Oh, right. No, he cut ties instead. And his hair and his beard. Clean break.”
Dov’s hand tightened around Asher’s. Such a sturdy man, so very good for leaning. “And you came along?”
Asher shrugged. “Maybe if I hadn’t been the little feygele boy, I would have sided with the rabbis, and my parents, and my other two brothers. But years of them treating me like a misfit, and thinking about having the same happen to Lem, and … no. I knew I didn’t belong either.”
Dov nodded, and they sat there together in companionable silence as Lem wandered from sculpture to sculpture, making his circuit according to whatever patterns in his head as an afternoon breeze cooled the shady garden. All told, Asher was glad Lemuel didn’t get it, that he’d never understand how he’d been the catalyst for that schism. Some things weren’t worth feeling guilt about.
At last, Dov nodded in Lemuel’s direction. “So why the hat?”
“Oh, that.” Tempted as he was to play it off, Asher had already dredged up so much potentially awkward family information that this piece didn’t seem like much to add. “He went for a while to an OT group that used to take the kids on lots of different field trips, to get them used to all kinds of different environments, and how in some places you can act one way, but in other places you have to act another way. It was actually really clever. But one of the places they went was a Reform synagogue, and the rabbi there was a woman who noticed that ‘Lemuel Cohen’ is a really Jewish name.”
Dov snorted a laugh. “Kind of hard to miss.”
“You think?” quipped Asher, and they chuckled together. “Anyway, what he took from the experience was that, one, he is Jewish, and two, being Jewish means wearing what he calls a ‘kipple’. His parents weren’t thrilled about it, but … with Lem, you pick your battles.”
“So they’re–” Dov chewed around a minute for the right phrasing. “Not the tefillin type.”
“No,” Asher confirmed. “Bacon-eating, Sabbath-working, Christmas-tree-sporting American secularists.”
“Kind of like my parents.”
Dov nodded. “Take your whole family drama and push it back a generation, add in a little Fiddler on the Roof with Russian Jews in Brooklyn and a boy and girl running off to California to marry one another when their parents say no, and you’ve got mine. Sure, we still came back to my grandparents’ sometimes when I was a kid, but those were some tense holidays. And then it all blew up when my parents put their foot down about not putting me through a bar mitzvah, since Chava couldn’t do one either. Cue staying home in December and the Hanukkah Tree.”
“Oh, that was another thing with Lem, the rabbis said, that he’d never become bar mitzvah, so he’d never be a man.” Asher heard the bitterness creep into his voice and bit it back. “I am so sorry, I don’t usually drop all this on a first date. Or a second date. Or ever.”
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m glad you did.” Dov’s hand hadn’t moved from Asher’s the whole time, and Asher found that he had, over the course of the conversation, slumped so hard against Dov that almost his whole weight was borne up by Dov’s shoulder and chest. Dov had not once complained nor tried to shift away. If holding hands in public was unusual for Asher, this kind of displayed affection was completely unprecedented. Yet Asher didn’t feel uncomfortable, not even under the weight of the occasional glances their closeness earned. He was in fact considering asking if his museum membership covered just staying right here for the rest of his life.
Asher looked down at their joined hands, at the way Dov’s long, lovely fingers had to arch and bend as they intertwined with Asher’s shorter, stubbier digits. “Everybody in my life is someone who already knows or doesn’t need to know,” Asher said with a sigh. He supposed that Dov didn’t technically fall in the need-to-know category, not after less than forty-eight hours of knowing one another. Was he rushing things? He was probably rushing things. Why was no one around him every minute of his life to warn him that he was rushing things?
Dov had called him, though. Dov had said it was all okay. Dov was letting Asher lean against him right now, on a public bench at a public museum. And if Dov wanted to throw the brakes on, he was a grown man capable of doing so at the slightest provocation. Or so Asher had to tell himself to feel at all better about things.
Suddenly Dov’s head jerked to the left, and he pointed with his free hand down a path that disappeared into the trees. “Uh, he’s gettin’ away, sarge.”
Asher looked to see that Lemuel was indeed heading off toward the sculptures along the walking trail. All of the trails eventually either dead-ended or wound their way back to the center, but Asher knew from heart-pounding experience that Lemuel had the uncanny ability to get lost in a straight line. “Care to walk and talk?”
“Sorkin-style!” said Dov with a grin, and that led the conversation toward the West Wing and away from family matters, which was something of a relief to Asher. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to reveal any more about his complicated history to Dov, but television was a safer topic, and no one had ever tried to move a relationship along too fast by revealing a great fondness for Allison Janney.
It was another hour before Lemuel decided he’d had enough art for the day and demanded pizza, which a quick phone call to Rivka determined would be an acceptable dinner. The curly-haired girl behind the mall food court counter looked a little surprised to encounter a young man wearing a yarmulke and ordering two slices of pepperoni, but she made no comment as she delivered them, plus one vegetarian and one Hawaiian, on a red plastic tray. Asher ferried them over to the table, feeling once more self-conscious about how no one over the age of twenty would have considered this acceptable courting.
Dov looked happy as could be, though, even before Asher placed his fruity abomination of a slice on the linoleum table before him. Lemuel was distracted from recounting badly the plot of the most recent Mission Impossible movie (though Asher only knew the synopsis was lacking because he had been the one to take Lemuel to see it) and punctuated the summary with bites of pizza. Asher only had to remind him a handful of times that eating and talking happened consecutively, not concurrently.
Under the table, Dov’s foot found Asher’s, and he winked at Asher as he twined their legs together. “So,” Asher ventured into a space during Lemuel’s monologue, “worst date ever?” He put on the best self-deprecating smile he could manage, hoping it would salvage some of his dignity.
“Doesn’t even crack the bottom ten.” Dov grinned and went about finishing off Lemuel’s untouched crust.
As much as Asher wanted to stay with Dov, he knew that returning Lemuel wasn’t always an easy procedure, and if the options there were to make Dov wait in the car or bring him inside, taking him home first was really the kindest solution. So he got out of the car and kissed Dov in front of the door to his apartment, promising to call later in the week. When he stepped back inside, he expected some remark from Lemuel, but got nothing all the ride home.
No, Lemuel saved his commentary on that matter for Rivka. “Uncle Asher brought Mr. Teplitsky to the museum with us and then kissed him,” was the first sentence out of his mouth as he walked in the door.
Rivka looked up from where she sat in the living room, spooning Kiera’s supper into her mouth. “And did you have a good time too?” she asked her son.
Lemuel nodded. “I have to pee,” he said, heading off down the hall.
Left standing in the entryway, Asher gave his sister-in-law a guilty smile. He had mentioned that he would be bringing a friend along with them, though he hadn’t specified a kissing friend. “Just at the end,” he clarified.
At least Rivka found it funny. Even before everything had gone bad, she had always been so sweet toward her youngest brother-in-law, and she’d never been shy about letting Asher know what he meant to their family. She had even not only accepted but eventually come almost halfway around to the idea of Roger, though ironically not long before he and Asher had split for good. “I didn’t know you were seeing anyone,” she said with a smile.
“It’s a very recent thing.” Asher fidgeted with the items in his trouser pockets. He chewed on the inside of his lower lip. “He’s Jewish.”
“Really,” said Rivka in a tone of mild surprise.
She and Solomon didn’t know. No, they knew some of it, like the way Rivka cooked vegetarian dishes on the nights they had Asher over for supper, like the way they never commented one way or another when he showed up in battered sneakers on Tisha B’Av. They understood habit, and thus they understood Asher’s lingering behavior in the category of habit, not intention. Asher supposed he couldn’t blame them; his break had not been their break, and his scars were not their scars. They were smart enough not to look back, lest they become pillars of salt.
Asher nodded. “Secular,” he added. “A woman he works with is the mother of one of the kids in Lemuel’s new group. He’s actually literally a rocket scientist.”
Rivka’s pretty smile broadened. She was a few years past forty and her age was showing, but all in laugh lines and grey streaked like bright ribbons through her curly hair. “Then he should be good for you. Two smart men.”
It would have been polite to point out how wrong she was, so Asher didn’t. “Do you need a hand with the girls?” he asked instead.
Rivka nodded as she adjusted the headrest on Kiera’s wheelchair, straightening her neck, then brought her another spoonful of her dinner. Kiera hadn’t been off liquid nutrition for long, but she appeared to be taking well to eating. “Sol’s at the store, so he shouldn’t be too long, and Destiny’s nurse is in there cleaning her feeding tube, but you can go peek in on Zuri.”
The room was darkened and the lullaby CD was playing, so Asher made as little noise as he could as he sat beside the bed of his youngest niece. Checking in on her was something of a moot point, since her various machines would have screamed bloody murder long before Asher could have seen anything wrong. But he still took her small, dark hand in his, rubbing the skin with his thumb where he could without disturbing the monitors. She had been with them the shortest period of time, and she was the least responsive of all Solomon and Rivka’s adopted children, but Asher secretly liked her best. She was stillness when she slept, and she was unconditional love when she woke, and Asher thought his own life would be better if he could simplify his life to those twin points.
He let his gaze drift over to the other bed in the room, the one empty for almost a year now. It was neatly made and all the medical trappings around it were gone, but otherwise it looked the same as it had when Allyah had inhabited it, with all her stuffed animals piled by the pillows and her books in neat rows below the nightstand. Lemuel had taped a picture of the night sky to her lamp, one cut out from a science magazine, because he insisted she was still alive and living on the Moon. Considering his own religious heritage was all but silent on the matter of the afterlife, Asher considered that as good a theory as any.
“Mi Shebeirach avoteinu: Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v’Leah, hu y’vareich et haholeh Zuri bat Solomon v’Rivka,” Asher half-recited, half-sang under his breath, in and out of tune with the soft lullaby music. He had learned the words years ago as part of a congregation, and he had never forgotten them, especially not for all the times he’d recited them by his nieces’ bedsides, so quiet their parents couldn’t hear. He likely knew them even better now, because before he had only droned through them as one voice among many for the welfare of people he hardly knew. If the two halves of his life had taught him only one thing, it was the value of willing submission over rote obligation.
And maybe it was foolish to pray a healing prayer for a young girl not only who wasn’t Jewish, but whose conditions were not curable, but permanent parts of her existence. Asher didn’t care. If HaShem didn’t consider her one of His people, then maybe her parents had the right idea.
“V’nomar: Amein,” he concluded, even though one didn’t say ‘amen’ to one’s own blessing. If he hadn’t, no one would have at all.
Time went quickly and slowly at once, as it always did. Because of their various job obligations, not only did Asher not see Dov the rest of that week, but he actually had to cancel all plans that weekend on account of Destiny’s having a seizure that landed her in the hospital. Dov sounded disappointed but understanding at the news, which Asher supposed was the best he could have hoped for, under the circumstances.
They talked, however, every night over the following two weeks as they covered the hours between getting home and going to bed. Asher’s apartment became that much cleaner once he realized that his earbuds had a microphone on the cord, leaving him free to walk around and do things as they chattered about nothing. They even got to the point of talking on the phone while both watching the same television show at once, some inane procedural he never would have turned on had Dov not had it on first. Dov declared halfway through the show that the bartender was the murderer, and Asher was shocked to see in the final reveal that Dov had been right.
“Law of conservation of characters,” Dov explained, in response to Asher’s bafflement. “The character where you wonder, why did they bother hiring an actor to play them? That’s whodunnit.”
It turned out Dov had plenty of insights about things like that, things Asher never even thought about. He had opinions on how to improve the efficiency of the DC Metro. He knew about microbrewing, even if he felt most of what it produced was overrated. He spent twenty minutes explaining why it made more sense to hang toilet paper so it dispensed from under rather than over, and Asher listened raptly every second even though he knew in his heart that despite all his well-organized logic, Dov was wrong, just terribly wrong. When he told Dov this, though, instead of being offended, Dov laughed with delight. So that was all right.
But Dov could shut up, too, and Asher found that in those spaces, he began to speak. At first it was mostly in response to Dov — in part because Asher was mindful of how much he’d said about himself at the museum, and how he didn’t want to stage a repeat, lest Dov think him prone to oversharing. As time went on, though, he found himself not only holding opinions on various subjects, but giving voice to them. He even caught himself at one point explaining how he’d spent much of his twenties freelancing as a copy-editor, going into more detail about the file-sharing process than any human, himself included, could possibly have cared about.
“This is the most boring arrangement of words that has ever come out of my mouth,” Asher said, seized by sudden horrible self-awareness. “Why didn’t you stop me half an hour ago?”
“Nah,” said Dov with an audible smile. “I like hearing you talk.”
What all this meant was that they didn’t see one another until dinner at Ruth and Eun’s, two weeks to the day after their initial meeting. Asher had almost convinced himself that it had all been a dream, some weird delusion, until Dov pulled up in front of his building and left his car running long enough to open Asher’s door and give him a big kiss in greeting. One trip to the liquor store later, and they were on their way.
No one looked surprised to see them arrive together, which Asher took as a sign that either Dov or Chava had prepped the rest on recent developments. Eun, perhaps the only human in history delighted by the gifts of kosher wine, welcomed them both in to the apartment, which was cozy and decorated in a strange hybrid Korean-Polish aesthetic. Asher felt about half at home.
That sense of familiarity increased to a terrifying pitch, however, as Asher looked at the table set with two candles and two loaves of bread under tea towels. “Come on in,” said Ruth, standing at the head of the table. “We were just about to get going.”
Asher had meant to walk right in, to smile and greet everyone, but the marrow in his bones had now turned to ice. Only the steady, friendly press of Dov’s hand on the small of his back kept him moving forward, and even then it was an effort to lift the corners of his mouth. Asher turned to Eun. “Your restroom?”
“Just the one, through the bedroom.” Eun pointed through a nearby door, and Asher followed her guidance.
Once the door shut behind him, Asher stared at himself in the mirror and firmly told himself that he was not having a panic attack, not now, not in someone else’s bathroom, not during something that could be classified as a date, and definitely not on account of a life he’d left behind. It simply wasn’t happening. Not because of a table set like that, of shouting and sobbing and Lemuel’s incessant wailing, of his father’s making a vow he’d held to his grave that if his eldest and youngest sons walked out that door, then by all that was holy, they would never walk back through it again.
No, because that wasn’t everything. He clenched his fists and set his jaw and stared his reflection down, reminding himself to breathe. There were still good memories of tables set like this, even if he hadn’t thought of them in a while either: one-seventh of the nights of his entire childhood warmed by this ritual of food and light. Ordinary Fridays with everyone gathered and laughing. Ones shared with visiting distant relatives. The first time Rivka had joined them as part of the family. Even just two weeks ago he’d walked into the same sort of place with almost the exact same people, and he’d had a great time, possibly the best he’d had in months.
There was good even in the presence of evil, and it was stronger. He had to believe that was so.
He splashed cool water on his face a couple times before returning, and when Dov gave him a look of slight concern, Asher brushed it off. He was fine, and he took a seat at the table with a big smile just to show how fine he was. There, he kept his hands clasped together under the table so no one could see how white his knuckles went when Ruth struck the match.
“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam,” she sang as she lit them both; she then closed her eyes, muddling the order somewhat, though Asher wasn’t about to say anything about it. As she waved her hands over the candles, she continued: “Asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu l’had’lik neir shel Shabbat.”
“Amein,” intoned three-quarters of the group, and Asher joined them, from reflex as much as anything else.
Ruth reached for a spoon and stuck it into a dish of mashed sweet potatoes. “And that is all of it I remember,” she told Asher as she passed it to him. He took it, grateful to have something to do with his hands that wasn’t cling to himself for dear life. “And even that only barely. What comes next?”
“The wine!” said a man from the other end of the table, one who hadn’t been at Dov’s during the previous dinner but who had been introduced at the start of this one as Eric. “Vaya … vaya hi erev, vaya hi something-something, hashish…”
“Vay’hi erev vay’hi voker,” said Asher, almost muttered under his breath, “yom hashishi.”
“That’s it!” said Chava, pointing at him from across the table. “Look who paid attention in Saturday School!”
“Look who went to Saturday School, ever,” said the bald man from the week before, whose name Asher had learned was Daniel. He shot Asher a sly wink, one Asher felt simultaneously pleased and awkward about receiving.
“Can you do the rest?” asked Chava, grinning at him with the same beautiful smile her brother had.
Dov wasn’t smiling now, though; he’d had half a frown going on since Asher ducked out to the bathroom, and now it had deepened to full disapproval. “Guys, how about we not–”
“No, it’s okay,” said Asher, and the weirdest part was that he wasn’t lying. He reached under the table and put his hand on Dov’s thigh, then looked back at Chava. “Yes. I can do the rest. I haven’t, not in a long time, but I can. I was raised just this side of ultra-Orthodox, so … yeah. Lot of memorization.”
“Wow,” said Eun. She made little spirals with her fingers, starting at her ears and going down. “With the little…?”
Asher nodded. “The hair and the hats, yes. And the absolute prohibition against work on the Sabbath.” Oddly enough, talking about it made the panic subside, like turning on a light in a closet to find that the shapes inside were only familiar coats and clothes, nothing frightening at all. “So for me, growing up, I knew this was the last hot meal I was going to eat for twenty-four hours.”
“Wow,” Eun repeated. “How do you do nothing for a whole day?”
Dov took Asher’s hand in his, and it was at that point Asher realized he had the whole room’s attention; dishes had all but stopped being passed, and only Madison squirming at her mother’s breast appeared to find something else more interesting. It occurred to him then that this was an answer he’d never voiced, nor even needed before to put into words. Just like his family history, everyone in his life who’d needed to know had already known. “Well,” he started, “in the beginning, when HaShem was creating the universe–”
“HaShem?” Eun frowned.
“God,” Ruth translated helpfully.
“God!” Eun nodded. “Sorry, go on.”
“When He was creating the universe,” Asher continued, dodging the issue of nomenclature as best he could, “He took six days of work to make everything, and on the seventh, He stopped working, stopped creating. And since the scripture says ‘vay’hi erev vay’hi voker‘ — and there was evening and there was morning, in that order — a day starts when the sun goes down. So Jews, to honor that schedule, don’t make anything on the seventh day, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.”
“And it’s not just, like, not baking a cake or painting a picture,” Daniel added as he filled the wine glasses for his end of the table. “You can’t turn on light switches or drive anywhere, or even pay for things. I have a cousin who married a girl with Hasidic parents, and there’s a whole list.”
Asher gave Eun a smile, especially since she looked a little thunderstruck by all this. There was something nice, too, to having someone who’d just ask. “The idea is, you’ve got six days to get done what you need to do to live in the world. And the seventh is set apart for the things that belong apart from it. And it’s hard, but it’s not supposed to be easy. So every time you don’t do something, you remember why you’re not doing it.”
Eun just shook her head with wonder. “Wow,” she said for a third time, before looking to Ruth. “How come your family doesn’t do that?”
Ruth shrugged. “Dad’s a lapsed Catholic and Mom remembers to go to temple maybe once a month. We’re the polar opposite of observant.”
“So stop me if I’m being super-nosy,” said Eun, looking back to Asher, “but do you … not do … stuff?”
The question startled Asher into a laugh — along with several others around the table, most of whom probably had more experience watching their older relatives obey Sabbath prohibitions than trying to keep them themselves. “I–” He took a breath and let it out in a puff. “No. That is, I try, but … it’s harder to do alone.”
“How come?” he was asked, and this time the question came not from Eun, but from Dov, whose fingers were still interlaced with Asher’s.
Asher took the space of a deep breath to consider his answer, then a swallow of wine to make sure he really knew his reply. “Because when you’re doing it alone, it’s like Eun said: How do you do nothing for a whole day? Especially when all the people around you are doing other things. It’s kind of just sitting alone in a dark room for twenty-five hours. But when you’re part of a close community where everyone is sitting there with you, you don’t have to worry about missing anything or having to explain, because everyone else understands. Nobody’s having a wedding or a birthday party on that Saturday afternoon, no boss wants you to close on Friday. Like how it’s harder to not eat kosher when no restaurant or grocery around will serve you anything that isn’t. The world’s just easier when you’re not the only one.”
He became aware that the entire table had stilled to listen to him, that even eating and drinking had given way to silence as he spoke, and he caught his lips shut between his teeth for a moment before braving a smile. “Anyway,” Asher said, “enough about my weird childhood.”
From across the table, Chava took Madison from her breast and handed her to Muhammad, who already had a stained cloth draped over his shoulder. “Maybe when it comes time to be at your house, you can show us how to do this right,” he said as he took his daughter and tucked her to his chest. He didn’t speak often, but his low, sonorous voice had a presence that was as sincere as it was commanding.
Asher expected the other Jews at the table to find that funny, to laugh and start in on explanations about why that was a good joke for Muhammad to make, even if he hadn’t made it on purpose. Instead he found himself surrounded by eager faces. “Oh, man, that would be fun,” said Eric, rubbing the back of his head.
“It… would?” asked Asher.
“Yeah,” Ruth said. “And educational for the goyim! That’s it, we’re putting you in the rotation.”
Dov squeezed Asher’s hand again. “You don’t have to if you–”
“No, no,” said Asher, shaking his head. He gave Dov a smile, and the best part of it was that he meant it now. “But somebody’s going to have to bring a card table and some extra chairs, or else we’re all going to be stuck eating gefilte fish on our laps.”
That steered the discussion straight into the land of the merits of that fine kosher dish, where the room was divided into camps of those who despised the cold, jellied dish, those who could cautiously admit they didn’t entirely hate it, and those who’d never tried it but couldn’t get behind the thought of putting anything in aspic, much less fish. That led into talk of other horrifying foods, kosher and otherwise, and as the meal went on and the candles burned down, Asher found himself feeling less alone with every shared laugh.
When Asher woke the next morning, he was still in his clothes, minus his tie and shoes, and he was face-down in an unfamiliar pillow that smelled like Dov and felt like Asher had spent a significant period of time drooling into it. He tried to sit upright, but someone had removed his brain and replaced it with approximately eighty-two million bees, so he mostly moaned and fell over again.
“Here you go,” said a comforting voice, and a soft hand rubbed gentle circles into his back. Asher cracked one eye open to see Dov — looking freshly showered and wearing clean clothes — holding a glass of water and a couple of aspirin. Asher took the latter, swallowed them with the former, managed to get half the glass’ contents down his front, and fell back asleep again almost as soon as he was done.
He woke at least an hour later, judging by the light, feeling still rough but no longer like death. “I am so sorry,” was the first sentence he could rasp out.
Dov laughed from where he was tucked up on the other side of the bed, balancing a Kindle on his knees. He reached over a hand and brushed Asher’s hair from his sweaty forehead. “Good morning.”
“So sorry,” Asher repeated. He couldn’t tell if it was sheer humiliation or the ridiculous amount of wine he’d had the evening before that was making his stomach roil, but it was a terrible combination. He hadn’t gotten drunk like that since he’d broken up with Roger, and at least then he hadn’t had to worry about its getting in the way of showing someone a good and sexy evening. By his current state of un-undress, he was fairly certain that despite all the kisses and promises made on the way to Dov’s apartment the night before, Asher had made good on exactly none of them.
Still smiling, Dov put the Kindle away and sank back down into the bed. He lay his arm out across the pillows; Asher scooted closer until his nose was just about buried in Dov’s armpit. There was that good, clean smell again. “How are you feeling?”
“Oogy.” Asher sighed, and the sigh turned into an unpleasant belch. Dov laughed while Asher hid his face in the soft, worn fabric of Dov’s t-shirt. “Embarrassed.”
“Don’t be.” Dov’s lips felt cool against Asher’s fevered brow as Dov gave him a quick kiss. “Eric likes hazing people with ouzo.”
Oh, right. No wonder Asher’s mouth tasted like a bag of black Twizzlers. He sighed and let his arm flop across Dov’s waist. “Just … tell me I didn’t make an ass out of myself until we got back here.”
“You didn’t even make an ass out of yourself after you got back here. You just kissed me a couple times, said you were going to close your eyes for a minute, and passed out.”
Asher groaned again. “Some date I am,” he muttered.
Dov kissed him again. “Nah, it was pretty cute. But if you’re up, there’s a clean towel in the bathroom, and I’ve got turkey bacon and coffee I can get going.”
It sounded heavenly, even if it did involve Asher’s having to drag his corpse into the bathroom. Once there, though, he found a stack of two fresh towels, with a still-packaged blue toothbrush right on top. Asher was so touched and hung over that he nearly wound up crying. Instead, he toothpasted the inside of his mouth within an inch of his life. When he was done, he considered his options, then put the toothbrush into the holder by the sink, right by a well-worn red one. Maybe it was presumption, but Asher liked to call it optimism. Stupid, stupid optimism.
Declaring himself too hungover for Sabbath observance at the moment, Asher stripped down and stepped under the shower stream. Once there, he tried to balance his various transgressions by reciting the prayers to himself even without physical copies of the Law to bind to his forehead and arms. Absent the gestures, though, the words felt awkward, and presently he stopped in favor of washing his hair. He wanted to be more bothered that he was abandoning his morning routine, but he found emptiness where he tried to raise upset. Maybe he’d been clinging his whole life to hollow ritual, imposing meaning on it where there was none. All it had given him were bad memories and constant reminders of his difference. Maybe there was nothing of righteousness to be found here, one way or another.
Maybe it was finally time to let that go.
He found the promised breakfast in Dov’s kitchen, and he paid for his meal with a long, gentle kiss. “Little more human?” asked Dov with a grin.
“Little more,” Asher agreed, doctoring his coffee with enough creamer and sugar to stop and jump-start his heart, respectively. It was that kind of morning.
They ate breakfast together on the couch, not at the table, their legs twined together as they put both plates on one TV tray. Asher rested his head on Dov’s shoulder between bites and closed his eyes, breathing in and out with slow regularity. This was nice. It was quiet, and it was nice. “Thanks for the toothbrush,” Asher said.
“You’re welcome.” Dov chuckled as he nuzzled Asher’s wet hair. “Figure I could compensate for at least half of the reason you couldn’t stay last time.”
“It’s a pretty important half.” Asher ran his fingertips up and down the backs of Dov’s knuckles. “For you as well as for me.”
Dov shrugged without displacing Asher too much. “I seriously did look into a set of tefillin, but, uh, those aren’t two bucks at the CVS.”
No, they weren’t. Asher’s own handmade set had run his family several hundred dollars and had been ordered several months in advance of his becoming bar mitzvah. That fraying at the edges had been happening for some time now, because he’d not yet been able to convince himself to spend a sum equivalent to their original purchase price to get them repaired. “It was sweet of you to check.”
Dov turned his hand over and splayed his fingers, lacing them with Asher’s. Asher hadn’t had his hand held so much since he’d become old enough to cross the street on his own. “I, um. I really didn’t mean to laugh that first night,” said Dov in a low voice.
Asher squeezed his fingers. “It’s really, truly okay. I know it sounded random.”
“It’s not just that.”
With a thoughtful hum, Dov tapped his fingertips on the back of Asher’s hand. “I’m an atheist,” he said at last. “So are my parents. So I grew up thinking of religion as a weird thing that my weird relatives did.”
Despite how implicated Asher felt in that characterization, he supposed he couldn’t blame Dov, especially when he thought about how similar Dov’s position on the matter was to Lemuel’s. It was one thing to have been raised in a culture; it was another to come to it already half a degree of separation gone. “Yeah,” he agreed.
“And then there just seemed like so much hateful stuff on top of it. Treating Chava like she was less important, or not as smart as me, because she was a girl. All the awful names for the black families in my grandparents’ building. And even before I figured out I was bi, all the anti-gay stuff, telling me to be a man, don’t be a sissy, don’t hang around the women or you’ll grow up a faggot, all that.” Dov let out a long, soft sigh into Asher’s hair. “So it got to the point where it seemed like the world had two kinds of people: the bigoted asshole religious ones, and the ones who took the fun stuff and ran. My first sort-of girlfriend, back in fourth grade, was a Christian who never went to church but got presents on Christmas and chocolate eggs on Easter, and I thought, see, that’s the way to do it. Forget the hateful superstitious shit, keep the candy. The year I realized I could just go into Trader Joe’s and buy my own gelt? It was such a revelation I made myself sick. Do you know how many chocolate coins you have to eat to get sick on them?”
Asher shook his head.
“It’s not a small number. Anyway, so I meet you, and you’re cute and you’re funny and you’re smart and it seems like you’re Jewish like me. And then all of a sudden it’s like, no, you’re Jewish like them. And that’s so not fair,” Dov added before Asher could even begin to formulate a response, “I know, it’s shitty and stupid and bigoted of me. But there’s a big part of my life I’ve spent thinking, here are the people who believe this, and they’re gross and awful, and the stupid things they believe are part of what make them gross and awful. And maybe I’m not quite over that. Which is my problem, not yours.”
“Except that it kind of affects me,” Asher said softly.
Dov sighed again, then extracted his hand from Asher’s so he could drape it over Asher’s shoulder. Asher leaned into the half-hug, as though in this sea of confusing feelings, Dov were a life preserver instead of an anchor. “You don’t have to answer, but can I ask a really personal question?”
After having sex with him and sharing his bed, albeit on different nights, Asher figured Dov had earned himself at least one of those. “Shoot.”
“Do you really believe it, or is it just a thing you do?”
It was a simple enough question, so simple that Asher already knew the answer, and the fact that he was having trouble articulating the answer was its own problem. While he couldn’t hide his Jewish heritage, not with a name or nose like his, the few times in his adult life he’d been challenged on it had been from cultural and political standpoints, not theological ones. Only once had he been cornered, at a party by a dedicated capital-A Atheist, who had alternated tragically between flirting with Asher and trying to get him to denounce the intellectual primitiveness of believing in a higher power. Though the interrogator had failed on both counts, once had been enough to make Asher gunshy.
But Dov wasn’t that man. Dov had introduced Asher to his friends and bought him a toothbrush and made him turkey bacon. If that earned him nothing else in return, it earned him a straight answer.
“Yeah,” said Asher, “I believe it.”
He could almost feel Dov’s skepticism, as though it were a tangible force. “All of it?”
And here was the difficult part, his last chance to confirm he wasn’t really crazy, that he didn’t really belong in the same mental category with all the dangerous them Dov knew. So with the heaviest of hearts, Asher sighed and closed his eyes. “Pretty much all of it.”
There was a pause wherein Asher could all but hear Dov’s trying to word his next question carefully. “Like … the whole part where God created the world in six days seven thousand years ago?”
“Oh. No.” Asher realized he’d misinterpreted the original inquiry. “I like science, and Big Bang theorizing, and evolution, and vaccines, and all that. That’s great.”
Dov’s fingers stroked fondly up and down the side of Asher’s arm. “So what do you believe?”
“That…” Self-conscious in the extreme, Asher tried to laugh away the awkwardness and found that only made it worse. “Do you want the answer that makes me sound like a rational individual you might want to consider continuing to date, or do you want the one that makes me sound like a crazy person?”
Now it was Dov’s turn for a bitter little laugh. “I haven’t let you see me take my morning antipsychotics yet, so … crazy’s not as scary to me as you might think.”
Well, that was an interesting reveal, and Asher wanted more than anything to follow down that particular rabbit hole, anything so that it got the spotlight off him. But he didn’t want to run, and changing the subject would be running. That was what Roger had yelled at him during one of their last fights, that Asher didn’t confront anything, that he only ever ran. Asher didn’t know if his instigating the breakup and moving out showed how wrong that was or served to prove the point. “Then I believe that, yes, HaShem exists. And a couple thousand years ago, He made a promise with a bunch of my ancestors — and yours — that we would live a certain way, and He would keep an eye on us. So that even when things got bad — and they did, and they still do — we’d still have someone looking out for us. Which sounds so stupid like that, I know, and there’s all these holes to poke in it, like, well, if your god is so good to your people, then why the Holocaust, and years of antisemitism, and war and famine and cancer in kids and–”
“No, it’s okay.” Dov hugged him close, and it wasn’t until he was pressed against Dov’s slender frame that Asher realized he’d started shaking. “It’s okay.”
“It’s stupid,” groaned Asher, talking not about faith matters now, but about his reactions. He was knotted up and sick with panic for the second time in twenty-four hours, and that was more times than he’d felt like this in entire years. “I got over it. I walked out, I left. It’s done.”
“Oh, man.” Dov chucked sympathetically. “If only that was how it works.”
“It should be.”
“Yeah, but it’s not. In college I dated this Taiwanese international student for a while who said … well, she said a lot of things, and I didn’t listen to most of them, because she was smart and I was stupid. See the part about this being dated, past tense.” Dov’s fingers kept moving in steady, soothing patterns against Asher’s arm, easing up into his back. Asher found himself relaxing into the comfort of the slow, gentle touches. “But she told me about a ritual her family did where they feed ghosts. Like, they burn paper money and paper versions of things their dead relatives like, and in return, the dead relatives agree to be cool and not bother the living. And I thought, how great is that? You don’t run from your ghosts. You feed them.”
The conversation seemed to have taken an entire turn for the unrelated, leaving Asher a bit at sea. “Okay?” he half-said, half-asked.
Dov kissed Asher’s hair again, then left his lips right there against Asher’s scalp as he continued to speak. “So when I was a kid, long story short, some bad things happened to me. And I went on trying to pretend they hadn’t, right until high school when, even longer story shorter, I got myself put into a hospital psych ward.”
Asher’s eyes widened. “I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, it’s okay. It really is. Now, anyway. And maybe I’ll tell you the whole story someday, but not now. So every morning, I pull out my pills and I feed my ghosts. And I used to get so mad about having to do it, like, why couldn’t I just tell my brain to shut up and be normal? And that’s what got me a couple more trips to a couple more psych wards, plus some intimate lessons on what a whole lot of charcoal tastes like coming back up. But then I realized, Jian’s dead grandparents weren’t her fault, so maybe PTSD wasn’t mine. Didn’t matter. Still had to get fed.”
The silence that followed behind Dov’s words was heavy, so much so that Asher could almost feel it wrap around his arm, winding up toward his heart. The uncharitable interpretation of this particular anecdote would have been to assume that Dov was connecting Asher’s faith in the Divine with trauma and mental illness in need of medication, in which case Asher felt he would have been justified walking out right then and never looking back. But no, even if he’d been trying to take offense, Asher couldn’t have believed that for long.
“So it’s okay to get weird about it, or upset about it,” Dov continued after a minute. “In my experience, nothing gets outrun. It just all sort of trails along, and the less you acknowledge it, the more it’ll scare the shit out of you when it jumps out at you in a darkened hallway.”
“Yeah,” Asher agreed, even though he didn’t quite believe it. Other people, better people, had outrun worse things in their lives and come out the other end standing tall. He didn’t want to pry into what had happened to Dov, but the pieces already presented painted quite a picture, one that made Asher’s own merely uncomfortable history seem small potatoes. He didn’t need any medication for it. Things like that happened every day. Lots of people couldn’t go home again.
“Look.” Dov sat up a little so that he and Asher could see one another as he spoke. He was so lovely, but there was hurt in his eyes, and it made Asher’s stomach turn to think he’d been the one who put it there. “I’m not going to claim I get it. I don’t. And just because it’s a bunch of stories I remember my grandparents telling doesn’t mean it makes any more sense to me than someone coming in and claiming, I don’t know, Cinderella was going to save my soul. Hell, that probably makes things worse, because all the people I knew growing up who believed the same things you do? Were pretty much total assholes. And then it seems like a whole lot of people you knew growing up who believed it turned out to be assholes too. So I don’t get why….” Dov sighed as he trailed off.
“Why I’m not screaming and running as far as I can in the opposite direction?” Asher managed a smile he didn’t feel, hoping it would make the question seem more like a joke and less like a defensive stab.
Dov nodded. “Basically, yeah.”
When Messiah came, Asher’s maternal grandfather had loved to say, the Temple would be built again, and day and night the pleasing smoke from the sacrifices would rise to the nostrils of HaShem, and the Ancient of Days would be truly honored as had happened in the time of David. It might be easier to find something in the universe that wasn’t hungry.
But how to explain that to someone who didn’t already understand? “I don’t know,” Asher said at last, and he wasn’t sure if that was a lie or not.
Another busy week passed, though this one with far less communication than before between the two of them, until Dov’s setting a Friday evening date left Asher half-sure he should be prepping for a breakup dinner. He tried to console himself with thinking that this was better for both of them, that they each deserved someone less a complete and utter mess. He even almost believed it
He also tried to distract himself with spending time with Lemuel, even though that began to grow awkward as both Rivka and Solomon begin asking more questions about this man Asher was seeing. Solomon even told Asher outright that he should invite Dov over for dinner sometime, so that family other than Lemuel could meet him. Considering how frosty they’d always been to Roger, this was an offer that touched Asher so much that he was heartbroken at the thought that the relationship might not last long enough to take Solomon up on it.
Thus, Asher had already worked himself into knots of pure anxiety when Dov showed up at the door half an hour before sundown, a duffel in one hand and a plastic shopping bag in the other. He gave Asher a kiss on the corner of his mouth, then walked on by toward the thrift-store table where Asher took his meals. “Hi?” Asher asked more than said.
“Hi!” Dov waved over his shoulder as he pulled out a few stacks of black plastic containers and a bagged loaf of bread.
Curious, Asher shut the front door and approached. When Dov had said he’d be over after work, Asher had heard an unspoken and I’ll pick you up and we’ll go out at the end of the sentence. He’d already gotten dressed, decided he hated what he was wearing, and chosen something else three different times, so the sweater-vest and tie he now had on had been carefully vetted as public attire. But what he saw as he neared the table were several different main and side dishes from the hot counter of the local grocery.
Dov grinned up at Asher. “I got about one of everything. Well, one of everything that didn’t have bacon. And all of it makes good cold leftovers.” Then he unzipped his duffel and withdrew two taper candles, two candlesticks, and an embroidered handkerchief.
The individual pieces made sense, but together they were a jumble, a jigsaw assembled the wrong way. “What’s all this?” asked Asher. He ran his fingers over the contours of one of the silver candlesticks; they still had the price tag sticker from Target stuck to the bottom.
“I didn’t know what you had, so I got what I could remember.” Dov picked up the candles and frowned. “Shoot, except a lighter. Do you have one, or matches?”
“I have a gas range.”
“It’ll do.” With a wink, Dov pulled a bottle of white wine from his duffel; a silver-embossed Star of David shone from its label. “On short notice, anyway. For the next” –he checked his watch– “nineteen minutes.”
In nineteen minutes, the sun would dip below the horizon and tomorrow would officially begin. “Are we having a romantic date of a two-man Shabbat dinner?”
“Nope.” Dov shook his head. “We are having a romantic date of a whole Sabbath. …Or at least a whole Sabbath until you kick me out, if you have other stuff to do. I know this is kind of short notice, but I kind of wanted to get it going before I gave you the chance to get self-conscious and tell me no.” He took his phone from his pocket and pressed the side until the shutdown screen appeared, then confirmed. Once it went dark, he placed it face-down on the kitchen counter where Asher kept his keys.
Asher watched this all with dawning, and somewhat frightening, recognition. Not a breakup dinner after all. Not in the slightest. “You know, you don’t have to,” he said. “What I do doesn’t have to affect what you do.”
“I know.” Dov nodded and took Asher’s hands in his own. “And most of the time, let’s be real honest here, I’m probably not going to want to. But I want to get it, because I think it’s a big part of getting you. Not that you’re absolutely perfect about it, but because you think about it, and you want to do it. And I don’t think I can get it if I don’t do it, at least once.”
It was all Asher could do to not cry, because he felt certain if he started, it would startle Dov and give off entirely the wrong impression. So instead he clenched Dov’s hands in his and swallowed hard. “Oh,” was all he could manage.
Dov’s grin widened. “And like you said, easier when you’re not alone, right?”
Most of the apartment’s lamps had timers already attached, and it was short work for Asher to set them all, turn off the wall switches, and leave the bathroom light on. He powered down his own phone, shut the lid to his laptop, and unscrewed the lightbulb in the refrigerator, the latter of which gave Dov pause. “That counts?” he asked.
Asher nodded as he shut the door. “Completes a circuit, uses electricity, makes a fire. Creation: therefore, work.”
With a sigh, Dov shook his head, letting his shoulders slump. “I am so going to screw this up,” he said, forcing a grin that didn’t make it to his eyes. “I should have printed out a cheat sheet or something.”
Despite not wanting to laugh at another’s misfortune, Asher couldn’t help the smile that crept across his face. “Hey, it’s okay.” He put his hands around Dov’s waist and pulled him close, pressing their foreheads together. “It means more that you’re trying. It … means so much.”
Dov kissed him on the cleft of his chin, and they stood there together like that for a moment, just leaning against one another. He was so steady, and Asher had thought at first that might be because he’d led a good life, with only good things happening to him. But that wasn’t true at all. He had learned to be steady in spite of all of it, and Asher held to him as though Dov were the strong bright center point around which the whole universe turned.
And then a sharp dinging sound made Asher jump nearly out of his skin. Dov pulled back the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a plastic digital wristwatch, one that couldn’t have been less than a decade old. “Three minutes!” Dov announced, giving the sunset countdown. They scurried back to their preparations, getting the candles lit and challah covered on the table just before a second set of beeps let them know the new day had begun.
There was no woman of the household to do the blessing over the candles, but as Asher was the only one who knew the words, the task went to him. Kiddush came next, though Asher felt compelled to take a moment before he began the recitation and point out that when the time came for him to do a proper Sabbath dinner for all their friends, it would involve putting the wine into a nice cup, and that leaving it in the bottle like this was not strictly traditional. Dov nodded and promised to raise no objections on that front.
Next, Asher led Dov over to the sink; he hadn’t managed to remember to get out glasses for the wine, but he had filled two small bowls with water. “Remember how to do this?”
“Absolutely not!” Dov chirped.
“Okay, watch.” Asher took his bowl in his left hand and poured water over the top and bottom of his right, then switched hands and repeated the gesture.
Dov did the same, though Asher had to remind him when he got to his left hand that it was top first, then bottom. To Dov’s eternal credit, he didn’t point out that surely the order made no difference in the grand scheme of things; he simply nodded and made the change. But when Asher recited the blessing and indicated that Dov should do the same, Dov looked blankly at him. “I got you for the Barukh atah Adonai, but nothing else.”
Asher frowned. “Think I need to write it out for when everyone’s here?”
“Definitely.” Dov thought for a second, his dripping hands still suspended over the sink. “What’s it mean?”
Translation on the fly had never been Asher’s strong suit, and he had to think about it for a second. “The usual at the first: Blessed are You, Lord, King of the Universe. And then … basically, it says HaShem is who gave us this commandment about the washing of hands. It’s the same prayer as over the candles, just with hand-washing instead of candle-lighting.”
“Oh,” said Dov. “Well, okay, blessed are You, Lord, King of the Universe, and thank You for telling us we should wash our hands before we eat. And here people say religion has no practical applications.”
Asher couldn’t help laughing at that, and the grin that got him from Dov made his heart feel light.
There was one more prayer to be had, this one over bread, and Asher did not bring up that technically they should have had two loaves instead of one. One was more than enough for the two of them, anyway, and he blessed it, ripped in half, and put a part on each of their plates. “That’s the same prayer too, only now praising God for making the earth make bread,” Asher translated. “And now we eat!”
“Amen to that,” said Dov, breaking out the little plastic containers. They were cooled somewhat now, after transit from the grocery and then having to sit out through all the preparation and ritual, but if Asher had objected to room-temperature meals, he would never have made it through his childhood. “Chava and Muhammad say hi,” Dov added as he scooped out green beans onto his plate. “And my parents.”
“When did you talk to them last?”
“Skype date last night with all them and Madison.” Dov chuckled over his glass of wine. “Which was going to be for tonight, but I told them we’d have to reschedule, because I would be observing the Sabbath with my boyfriend.”
His nonchalance about the statement made Asher all but choke on a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “And how did that go over?” asked Asher.
“Oh, it was the non-stop Make Fun of Dov Comedy Hour. Which it usually is anyway,” Dov added quickly as Asher’s face fell. “Well, okay, the first half was cooing at Madison. But then it was her bedtime, and the free-for-all began.”
“I’m … sorry?”
Dov shook his head with a grin. “Don’t be. In my family, we express affection by insults we don’t mean. Though I swear they didn’t give Chava half this much shit when she started dating a Muslim boy. They must just constantly be thinking to themselves, what have we done? We raised two good, secular children, only to have them go and get involved with people who believe God told them not to eat pigs! Where did we go wrong?! And then my mother cries over the holiday pork chop recipe she doesn’t get to use anymore.”
Asher thought back to the meals and realized that for as much wine as had been flowing around those tables, Muhammad’s glass had always been filled with water. “So he’s observant?”
“Oh yeah. Prays five times a day, made the Hajj a couple years back, whole thing.” Dov let out his breath through pursed lips. “And so of course I’m an idiot and Chava was the last person I thought to ask for advice here. Because she’s like me, you know. She doesn’t believe any of it.”
“And what did she say?” asked Asher, expecting some pat reply on liberal ecumenism and how what really mattered was how everyone was human inside, and so forth.
“She said sometimes it’s hard!” Dov shrugged. “She says sometimes it just makes her so mad, because she just wants to shake him and say, what you’re doing makes no sense! There’s no higher power, the rules you’re following were made by people who thought the Earth was flat, and nobody is going to give a shit if you eat a mid-afternoon snack during Ramadan! And she told me, and this I did not know before, that she decided to break up with him just a couple months into the relationship because she just didn’t get it.”
“But she didn’t.”
Dov laughed and shook his head. “She totally did! For about two days. And in those two days she realized that it’s all pretty damn arbitrary. All of human behavior. Maybe nobody gives a shit if he eats during the day during Ramadan, but nobody gives a shit if she ran three miles instead of two that morning, and she still did it. Nobody all day cares if her bra and panties match, or what makes her favorite coffee cup her favorite. Nobody made her go by Emily Dickinson’s house when she was college-road-tripping through New England. So she realized that everyone’s got a set of almost-random rules that make the world make sense, and that if she was going to disqualify potential partners just for not making perfect sense to her, then she was going to have to wait until someone developed cloning before she could fall in love. And she decided loving him was better than waiting.”
Asher was going to blame the wine for how he had to pick up his napkin then and blot at the corners of his eyes. But he reached his arm across the table, within the sphere of light cast by the Sabbath candles, and took Dov’s hand in his own. “I’m glad she thinks so,” he said with a smile.
Dov squeezed Asher’s hand tight. “She knows so.”
After dinner was finished, they packed up the leftovers and stacked them in the darkened refrigerator, then fell by mutual unspoken understanding into one another’s arms, much as they had on that first night together. Now, though, they understood one another better, and the distance covered by that understanding was not to be underestimated. With Dov’s arms around his waist, Asher led them into the bedroom, which was lit only by the light from the bathroom; Asher kicked himself for not remembering to check the bulb in the only lamp in the room on a timer. He looked back just in time to smack Dov’s hand as he reached for the light switch. Dov looked puzzled and offended for a second, then laughed. “Sorry,” he said, kissing Asher again. Asher could only wish that all the corrections he made in his life got him such excellent results.
He had heard once a tale of two gay Orthodox Jews who responded to the Levitical prohibition of lying with a man as one would with a woman by only having sex standing up. Though he applauded them for their ingenuity, Asher had never found it necessary to have a workaround because he had never once had sex with a man the way he might have with a woman. Dov was strong, handsome, and definitely male, and Asher was reminded of the latter fact as he cupped his hand across the front of Dov’s trousers and heard a low rumble of pleasure in his ear.
Clothes came off, scattered around the small bedroom through careless tosses, until they were both naked atop Asher’s bed, kissing and holding one another. It felt so good to be like this, to be touched and loved. Asher got a hand on Dov’s side and rolled them over so that Dov was on top of him, his hips between Asher’s thighs. Dov broke from the kiss to give Asher a sly grin. “Is this what you want?” he asked, prodding the cleft of Asher’s ass with the tip of his cock.
Asher nodded. It wasn’t always or even often his idea of a good time, but now, the thought of Dov inside him was making him so hard he ached. He tapped at the bedside table, where the top drawer was filled with some optimistic purchases: a box of condoms and some lube.
Dov wasted no time in getting himself ready, making as much of a show of himself as he could in the mostly darkened bedroom. He dabbed a little lube onto his palm and slicked up his cock, letting Asher see how much he was enjoying himself with every stroke. “Does this not count as work?” he asked with a grin.
“Nope,” said Asher with a grin. “Or, well, the rabbis who say it’s permissible to have sex on the Sabbath would prohibit this for being gay anyway, and the rabbis who don’t care if it’s gay don’t care what you do on the Sabbath. Therefore, I think we are engaged in the time-honored Jewish practice of finding a loophole and working it.”
“I’ll work your loophole,” said Dov with the sultriest, most ridiculous leer ever, and Asher almost hurt himself with how much that made him laugh.
By the time he caught his breath again, Dov had rolled a condom on and was prodding Asher’s ass with two lubed-up fingers. Asher spread his thighs, being as accommodating as he could under the circumstances; he sighed with a familiar pleasant ache as two of Dov’s fingers penetrated him. “See?” breathed Asher with a half-lidded smile. “Not work at all.”
Dov laughed and kissed Asher’s belly with a noisy smack. “Or maybe it’s kosher because this is what God did on that seventh day. Had a lot of gay sex.”
Asher burst out laughing again, covering his face with his arms. “No, no, I don’t even believe in Hell and I’m going there just for hearing that.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” Dov said, and he punctuated the promise by replacing his fingers with his cock. Taking all the time in the world, he slid inside Asher’s ass, until he was inside Asher to the root and Asher was breathing heavily. “You okay?”
Unsure of his ability to speak at the moment, Asher lifted a hand and gave a thumbs-up gesture. Dov chuckled as he caught it and kissed the backs of Asher’s knuckles and the pad of his thumb. Asher relaxed, letting himself be moved as Dov braced himself on his knees, then began to move his hips. Asher gasped as Dov’s cock began to withdraw from him, but when Dov stopped and gave him a puzzled look, Asher nodded. No, this was perfect, it was better than perfect; it had just been a while.
Once Dov began to move with real force, Asher let himself be lost in the pounding rhythm of it. Sometimes getting fucked like this was tough for him, because he was always so intently conscious, his mind going a million miles a second in all directions. What was difficult, then, was the act of letting go and trusting someone else with his body, and at the same time letting himself focus on the sensation. The past and future were still there, but they became quiet as he let himself relax beneath Dov’s strong, handsome body. Dov was still; he was steady; he was that anchor, and drowning was no longer something to be feared.
When Dov came at last, it was with a cry pressed against Asher’s neck. He took his hand then and wrapped it around Asher’s cock, and with only a few strokes Asher was spilling as well, pouring come across Dov’s hand and his own belly. He’d made such a mess of himself, and he wouldn’t be able to take a shower until Saturday evening, but as far as Asher was concerned, it was all worth it.
He did, however, get up long enough to go get a towel, once Dov had pulled out of him and collapsed on one side of the bed. He ran it under the tap, making sure not to get it so wet he had to squeeze any excess out of it, then wiped himself as lube- and come-free as he could manage. By the time he came back, Dov had disposed of the condom in the wastebasket and was now sprawled face-down across the covers. He lifted his arm as Asher got into bed, and once Asher was horizontal again, he dropped it with a possessive thud across Asher’s waist.
Asher gave him a kiss on his forehead, then another on his cheek. “Go wash your hands,” he said, giving Dov’s ass a pinch. “Cold water only.”
With the kind of grunt only a post-orgasmic man could make, Dov hauled himself out of bed and staggered zombie-like toward the bathroom. He poked his head out a half-second later. “Cold only?”
“Heating water is work.”
With another little grunt, Dov disappeared back into the bathroom. Moments later, over the sound of running water, he called out, “My next project is to invent a time machine, go back to when people were writing the Bible, and convince everyone that God spent the seventh day having gay sex and taking hot showers.”
“Good luck with that,” said Asher, snuggling down under the covers. “You speak any Hebrew?”
There was a pause, and then the tap in the bathroom turned off. “My next project is to learn Hebrew, invent a time machine, yadda yadda,” said Dov as he emerged again. He flopped back down on the bed, looked at the clock, and looked back at Asher. “So now we just, what, go to bed?”
“Pretty much.” Asher tucked himself under Dov’s arm again. “Unless you want to go read in the other room, but you’ve got about twenty minutes left until the lights turn off.”
“Nah,” said Dov. He nudged Asher over on his other side until they were curled together there like spoons, with Dov’s lips against the back of Asher’s neck. “Just … feels weird. Like I’m missing something, going to bed without watching Netflix or checking Facebook. Do you just get used to that?”
“No,” said Asher after a moment’s consideration. “No, you don’t. The point is that you never do. Where we are now isn’t like anything else.”
“I think I’m starting to understand.” Dov settled himself against Asher’s back, matching him warm, soft curve for curve. Then suddenly his whole body jerked with alarm. “Shit, did we leave the candles going?”
Asher nodded. “They’ll burn down on their own. Can’t cause a flame to be lit or extinguished.”
“Wow.” Dov pressed a kiss against Asher’s bare shoulder. “Lots of things are work.”
Asher nodded as he took Dov’s hand in his own, holding on to him in the still, dark night.
“Come on,” whispered Asher, nudging Dov awake.
Dov grunted. “What?”
“Come on,” Asher repeated. The sky outside was still all but dark, but it was time. He roused the sleeping bear that was Dov and nudged him through the motions of getting dressed. Fortunately, Asher had his coffee maker double as his alarm clock on most days, which meant that there was a pot ready by the time they got into the living room. Dov looked fuzzy and dreamlike as he stood there in the doorway to the kitchen, swaying a little, but he made no protests as Asher pressed a mug into his hands. And that bit of goodwill was enough to get him to follow Asher out the door and onto the roof.
Even with the light pollution of the city and the earliest streaks of dawn, there were still stars visible overhead, a few brief constellations hanging on at the end of night. Fall was almost here, warned the chill before sunrise, but at least the colder this got, the later Asher got to sleep. Everything was about balance.
“Why are we outside?” Dov blinked at the surroundings, obviously still not far up from sleep.
“You’re right-handed, right?”
“Then hold out your left arm,” Asher instructed. When Dov did, Asher took his own coiled tefillin from his pocket. He placed the first black box against Dov’s left bicep, just across from his heart, and positioned the loose loop around the rest of his arm.
Dov stared blankly at the gesture. “You’re serious,” he said at last, a faint smile of disbelief curling at his lips.
Asher clucked his tongue at himself. “I didn’t write this down either. Okay: usual Barukh atah Adonai start, but now, asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu l’hani’ach t’filin. Who makes us holy through the commandments and commands us to put on tefillin.”
“Who makes us holy through commandments,” Dov started, and then trailed off. Asher supposed he couldn’t blame Dov for not trying to echo the unfamiliar Hebrew; maybe he’d make sure they were both a little more awake before trying much of that.
“And commands us to put on tefillin.”
“And commands us to put on tefillin.” Dov looked down at the strap encircling his arm, and Asher expected some smart comment then, something like the laughter that had brought their first night together to such an abrupt end. Asher had even decided beforehand he wouldn’t take offense this time; it was Dov, Asher was asking him to do something bizarre to him, he was dealing with it in his own way, and that was all right.
Instead, though, beneath those last few stars, he saw an expression of intense, quiet concentration come over Dov’s face. Here were the same leathers and boxes that had sat on Asher’s arm and head since he was a teenager, that had wound and unwound the commandments against Asher’s bare skin as long as Asher had been considered a man. Here was what it was to be a Jew — not for everyone, but for some, Asher included. HaShem’s commandments were arbitrary, perhaps, but they were the kind of arbitrary that made the world made sense. Even for a non-believer, Asher imagined it wouldn’t be easy not to feel that weight.
Gently, Asher tightened the loop around Dov’s arm until the strap was secure and the knot was snug in place next to the box. “Hold still,” he said, wrapping the strap twice more around Dov’s arm, just above the box. He lifted the bottom half of Dov’s arm and wound the leather seven more times around it, each coil making its way down toward the wrist. He gave one more wrap around Dov’s palm, then closed Dov’s thumb lightly on it to hold it in place for now.
When Asher readied the second box, Dov held out his other arm. Instead, Asher placed it at the center of Dov’s head, just above his forehead, and brought the straps around to where they tied in the back. “This is weirdly a lot harder to do on someone else,” he said, trying to position a loop tied for his own head in the right places on Dov’s larger skull.
“Feels a little loose,” Dov said, looking upward as though he could see the box tied to his hairline.
“Just don’t move too much.” Satisfied that it would stay in place for the time being, Asher went back to Dov’s arm. With the loose end of the strap, he made three more loops around Dov’s middle finger, then coiled the end around Dov’s palm until no slack was left. That done, he stepped back to admire his work.
Asher hadn’t seen someone other than himself wearing tefillin in so long, he’d almost forgotten the otherworldly effect it had on a person. The bindings were a little strange, it was true, and the more he was a part of secular culture, the more there was this laughable weird BDSM vibe to it. But there was nothing laughable about the way Dov seemed so dignified, quietly honored to be tied. Whatever this may have meant to him, it meant something. That, at least, was a start.
“Put your right hand over your eyes,” Asher instructed. Dov looked skeptical but complied. “Repeat after me: Sh’ma Yisraeil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad..”
He was expecting to have to go over that at least once more, but some portion of Dov’s long-disused rote memory must have come into play then, because he opened his mouth and gave a perfect echo: “Sh’ma Yisraeil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.”
There, thought Asher. Dov had wanted to know what he believed; instead of trying to cobble together his own poor theological statement, he should have said this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Everything else that was commanded was related to that truth; everything that wasn’t was instructive but not essential.
Maybe there were specters that wouldn’t accept not being addressed openly, and that was why they could still frighten Asher now, appearing in unexpected places, howling and hungry. For so long he’d treated this obligation, this daily portion of his identity, as though it were some sort of shame. Maybe it was not the act which he needed to dispense with, but the fear of letting it — and himself — be seen.
He could find a synagogue again, one that would take someone like him, one that Dov might even feel called to attend, once in a great while. He could take along Lemuel sometimes too, to teach him that being Jewish was about more than the name and the hat. Maybe Rivka and Solomon wouldn’t entirely approve, but Lemuel was a man now, despite whatever coming-of-age rituals he might have missed, and he could make his own decisions about his life. This all belonged to him, after all, just as it belonged to both Asher and Dov in equal measure, and if a bunch of assholes thought they had a monopoly on it, that didn’t make it so. No one had to run from anything; all that was needed was to step forward and take ownership of what mattered most. Recite the prayers, obey the commandments, accept the blessings. Feed the ghosts.
“Now uncover your eyes,” Asher said softly, and as Dov withdrew his hand, the sky began to bleed pink over the eastern horizon. There was evening and there was morning; the seventh day.