Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel
We grew up together, Mack and I. Or at least we shared the same classrooms from Sister Mary Margaret's kindergarten through Father John Patrick Denning's 12th-grade history class. But it was only later, after my wife and I divorced and Mack was just getting engaged, that we became friends.
Mack was the name he preferred. His real name is Judah Maccabeus O'Flaherty. It should have been "Judas" Maccabeus, of course, but his mother was afraid the other kids would tease him for having the name of the apostle who betrayed Christ—an odd scruple on her part, given the handles she actually did burden him with. But parents are like that. They rarely consider what it'll be like for their offspring to wear a sandwich board of weird monickers for an entire lifetime. I should know. My parents called me Christopher Aloysius Lifkovitz.
You would think Mack and I would have bonded like two kids with misshapen limbs or prominent birthmarks. It doesn't work that way. Kids want nothing so much as to be normal. Associating with another freak only confirms what a misfit you are.
Once the other boys found out Mack was really Judah, they started calling him "Jew" for short. When they had nothing better to do, they sang "Hey, Jew," to him.
I had it easier. Kids don't pay much attention to last names. I was safely "Chris," at least until I went away to college and got the opportunity to rebrand myself. I chose to become "Al." As in "Alan." Aloysius be damned. I became Al Lifkovitz, Jew-boy.
I joined the Jewish student organization on campus and started attending Friday-evening services. No one questioned my bona fides, not with a name like Alan Lifkovitz. They even found my ignorance of most things Jewish unsurprising, given what they believed to be my gentile upbringing, and vied with each other to get me up to speed in Yiddishkeit. I knew that to be a real Jew, my mother, not my father, was supposed to be Jewish, so I pretended she was. I said my parents were secular, fallen-away Jews. My new friends quickly corrected me: Christians might be "fallen away," Jews "assimilated."
I made out like a gonif with the girls in that chapter of Jewish Students on Campus, not to mention J-SOC co-eds in other colleges in that part of New England. Not that they were any easier than gentile girls. If anything, they were less so, at least to get them to go all the way. They had a thing about being virgins on their wedding nights.
Meanwhile, Mack, the "real" Jew, was brown-bagging it to Catholic Fordham College in the Bronx. Years later, after we became friends, he told me it was the worst time of his life. Not because of his name—college students are idiots but not in the obvious way younger kids are. Right after graduation from high school, he had some kind of breakdown and didn't go out of the house that entire summer. When he turned up to register for freshman year on the Rose Hill campus, he had lost so much weight, his classmates from St. Athanasius didn't recognize him. It took until his junior year for him to start feeling like himself again.
"What happened that summer?"
"Dunno. Nervous breakdown. Do they still use that phrase?"
"I just stopped functioning. Lost my appetite. Didn't go out. Stopped seeing my girlfriend... That was the worst part. Not not seeing her, but the way she took it. She cried and cried... over the phone."
"Why didn't your parents send you to a therapist?"
He took a sip of beer from the styrofoam cup everyone drinks out of in McFadden's, the local bar that's as much an institution in our neighborhood as the parish church. Then he gave me a look as if I had just asked him why his parents didn't send him to an exorcist.
"Okay," I said, "Catholics don't do the therapy thing. But, even so. What about the girlfriend?"
"What about her?"
"Did you ever get back together?"
"Why not? I mean, you came out of it eventually, the breakdown."
He took another sip of beer—Budweiser, the only kind on tap even though the neighborhood is now full of kids from the South and Midwest, half of them living off trust funds. But the place still smelled the same as it did 20 years ago when my old man drank there. The reason I knew that smell so well is because my mother used to send me to fetch him if he lingered past the time her Sunday pot roast was done. More than once he came home with a bloody nose after a political dispute with one of the locals. I suspect the cretins started those arguments just to fire him up so they could take a swing at the little kike who didn't belong in that Irish-Catholic Holy of Holies in the first place. They even bought him drinks to get him riled up. Dad was a Norman Thomas socialist. Everyone else who drank there was red-meat conservative.
But Mack, who actually resembled his Russian-Jewish mother, looked more Irish than I did. Unless you knew his first names, you never assumed he was anything but a mick.
"Actually, I did see Mara again. Once or twice. But we never... took up where we left off..."
"How come? What changed?"
He stared into the big unobstructed mirror behind the bar—no ranks of scotch, bourbon, or other strong drink in McFadden's. Only earlybirds drink hard liquor there, boilermakers at seven or eight in the morning for which the bartender keeps a special bottle under the bar. On my way to work, I see those hard drinkers staring like damned souls through the big plate glass at the commuters rushing toward the subway entrance around the corner.
"Me, I guess," Mack said. "I changed. Actually, I sort of disappeared."
He turned away from the figure in the mirror and regarded me as if I were a stranger he had begun a conversation with that had gotten too personal. At that point he and I had been friends for the better part of a year, since the night we ran into each other in that same bar. At the time my life was in the toilet thanks to the divorce I've already mentioned. Mack became a prop for my shattered psyche, a regular father confessor, only better than any priest I'd known. I have no idea where he got all that wisdom about marriage, given his long bachelorhood. I credit him for 90 percent of the sanity I managed to hold on to that year. Now I figured maybe I could return the favor. But that obviously wasn't going to happen that day, and to tell the truth, probably never will.
"Could we just drop the subject?" he said, his tone midway between apology and irritation. If he hadn't had two beers in him, he probably wouldn't have said anything at all.
My wife and I were married six years when we separated. We met in college. Eva was not one of those obliging but oddly principled J-SOC girls I had spent so much time with in my undergraduate days. She called herself a Jew but was fiercely independent and frequently got on the bad side of other Jews on campus, even so-called liberals. She supported the right of a Palestinian-rights organization to sponsor public forums on campus back when that was still considered high treason for someone of her background. She got a bunch of hate mail for her efforts, and when she lost her temper and called one of the J- SOC leaders a Nazi in a yarmulke, almost got expelled.
It was Eva who made me take a hard look at myself. Till then I was just having a lark, pretending to be something I wasn't and enjoying the social advantages of an organization I had joined without caring or even knowing what it stood for.
Our first meeting was on the quad outside the student union where an Israeli general was giving a talk. Eva was carrying a sign that read "Palestinians Have Human Rights Too!" I had arrived late for the talk—I was only there for the eats and dancing afterwards.
"Palestinians are human beings!" she shouted at me. "Why don't we ever get to hear their side of the story?"
"I don't know," I replied with a smile. Eva was cute, still is, with curly black hair and eyes almost as dark. She's short, just barely over five feet, and her lack of stature made her seem hard to take seriously. "Why don't we get to hear their side?"
She turned out to be one of the finest human beings I've ever known. And one of the bravest. Not for me, boy, standing up to half a dozen people screaming abuse in your face and even spitting on you. I've been in a few fights, but it doesn't take a lot of guts to start throwing punches when you're hammered and all fired up. You feel proud of yourself even if you come out on the losing end. Afterward you get pats on the back from your drinking buddies and can add your war story to the mix when the boys are kvelling.
What Eva was up to was another matter entirely. I had never seen anyone show that kind of guts. I've just said her antagonists shouted and occasionally spat at her, but they also looked perfectly capable of beating her up, girl or no girl. The only time I'd seen someone endure what she did was in footage of the civil rights protests back in the 60s (Eva's parents had participated in some of those marches and sit-ins).
We had a discussion about the issue she was there for, and true to my unprincipled self, I pretended she had convinced me. That gave me an opening to ask her to have coffee. She said she had too much to do, but she invited me to come to the next meeting of the Palestinian-rights group.
When my friends in J-SOC found out what I was up to, they called me a self-hating Jew. I couldn't care less. I still had my Jewish identity intact, and that counted as much, if not more, with Eva's group as it did for J-SOC. Jews had more credibility when they protested what the Israeli government and its American supporters were doing than did gentiles, who were dismissed as anti-Semites. In fact, almost everyone in the Palestinian-rights group was Jewish. One or two, it turned out, were moles, and one, maybe not surprising, FBI. But, for me, joining Eva's organization just meant I was switching from one group of fanatical Jewish kids to another, my purpose being simply to get Eva into the sack.
Eva was an atheist and a free-thinker in addition to being an anarcho-syndicalist. But she had much stricter personal morals than most of the other girls on campus, at least the ones I knew. She had no objection to other people doing whatever they wanted with whomever they wanted to do it, but she had no interest in sex with someone she didn't love. This was news to me. I had found the J-SOC girls' refusal to compromise their virginity quaint, but otherwise they were pretty much in the mainstream when it came to sex. But Eva—she was not, I later found out, a virgin: a high school romance—was fiercely independent and as grounded in her personal morals as she was in her political ones.
Soon I was standing outside the Student Union, placard in hand, chanting, "Palestinians have rights, too!" But any fear I had of being abused by my former chums in J-SOC were soon put to rest. They ignored me, refused to look my way as if I had ceased to exist. I suppose that was their way of saying I was dead to them, dead as a Jew.
But they still paid plenty of attention to Eva and the two or three other hardy souls who stood on a picket line with her. "Arab Bitch!" and "Arafat's Whore!" were two of the kinder epithets shouted at them. I wanted to slug a couple of them, but Eva forbade it, saying violence on our part was just what they wanted. So, I took the abuse with the other PR crowd, though I never did so with their stoicism.
Besides, I wasn't really there for a political purpose. I might not have gotten past first base yet with Eva, but the better I knew, her the more I liked her. I liked just being in the same space with her, even if I had to share it with a handful of other students, not to mention with her passion for just causes. She had taken it on herself to educate me about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and that meant our spending time together, sometimes in her room she shared with another member of the PR group: Ruthie—a tall, lethargic girl who always had her nose in a book when she wasn't attending meetings or demonstrating. Rarely were Eva and I alone, but when we were, I was careful not to make any move that might queer the bit of progress I had made.
But she was not made of stone. Under the dogged dedication she put into her activism was a normal young woman with all the needs and desires of any other normal young woman. My discretion paid off—maybe a crude way to say it, but she came to love me just as my own feelings for her evolved from blatantly sexual to respect to something I had never felt for anyone else. Senior year we moved in together. Two months after graduation we married, a civil ceremony attended only by that tall, listless roommate.
Along the way, of course, I told Eva about my being just a faux Jew. She was surprised at first but then shrugged her shoulders and asked what I wanted from the Mexican takeout. She was totally secular, raised in a family that never went to synagogue or followed the Jewish religion in any way. Yet, like Eva, they considered themselves Jews. Eva and I had some long and occasionally warm discussions on this subject. Despite her belief that everyone was equal to everyone else and that all religions are tools of oppression, she maintained she could not not be a Jew even if that was what she wanted, which she didn't. When I asked where her Jewishness was rooted, what made her Jewish despite her having as little connection to the religion as I did, she gave replies I found at first comical but then more and more exasperating.
"There's nothing Jewish about bagels and cream cheese!" I replied to one of her more ridiculous reasons for what made her Jewish. "Bagels were invented in Bulgaria and cream cheese comes from Philadelphia."
She looked surprised at this news but undaunted. "Whatever. A Jew is a Jew."
"What you think is Jewishness has nothing to do with the religion of Judaism. A Morrocan Jew doesn't know from brisket or knishes, anymore than a Chinese Jew does."
"There are no Jews in China."
"Of course there are Jews in China. There are Jews in every part of the world. And, guess what the Jews in Bejing eat? Chinese food!"
Even though she listened politely whenever I went on about this topic, I doubt she ever gave it much thought otherwise. Nor, looking back, should she. She was doing the Lord's work. What did it matter if she was a Jewish Jew or a make-believe Jew?
We were happy. My parents loved her, and she took to them, too. I especially liked her grumpy father from whom she got her passion for justice. I listened hour after hour to accounts of his days in the union movement and civil rights marches of the '60s. Her mother had long grown tired of his monologue, but for me it was fresh and fascinating. He was a walking history book.
"That was before Eva started law school."
Mack and I were in our usual haunt, seated all the way down the end of the bar, almost in the men's room. At that point I was newly divorced and he had just met Cynthia, his future wife.
"Right," I said. "She was working for the ACLU as a... I forget her title. A kind of intake worker. But she wanted to be where the action was, in front of a judge and jury."
"You sound resentful. Did you mind her going to law school?"
"Why should I mind? All it meant was that between her job and attending classes, she was away from the house from seven in the morning till nine or ten at night."
"Did you tell her how you felt?"
I gave Mac the look I reserve for students in my ninth-grade science class when they ask a question I've already answered twice that day. "How could I object? It was her life. We had no children, and even if we did..."
"That couldn't be the only reason you broke up. I mean, you stayed together all that time, for, what, three years while she went to Brooklyn Law. Did she still keep those long hours after she passed the bar?"
"Some days she got home at six, other times she might work till midnight. But, you're right, it wasn't about her hours... at least not just about that."
I was trying to think why we did split up—I mean beyond the immediate cause, which I'll get to in a minute. We had, after all, weathered what should have been the most difficult years for our marriage: law school and her first year as a civil rights attorney when she had to do all the time-consuming work more experienced staff foisted off on newbies. But the beers I'd drunk and the hurt of what I had just been through were making a clear recollection of those days difficult.
Mack stared at my profile as I contemplated the 30-year-old me in the mirror behind the bar. I've often wondered why they put mirrors behind bars. You can't avoid them, and the image of yourself as you sit getting drunk and feeling more and more sorry for yourself can only be depressing. Or is the mirror there for that reason, so you will get bummed out at what you see and order yet another drink to dull the pain?
"I guess the truth is..." I started, only then noticing gray hair on the left side of my hairline. At this rate I would be gray before I was 40, then bald, as bald as my old man who had a pate as shiny as a cue ball. "But, 'What is truth?' to quote... someone... who?"
"Really?" I said, turning away from the image in the mirror. "Are you sure?"
Mack ignored my question, too nice a guy to point out I'd had too much to drink. I started to order another round, but he said he thought we probably should get going.
He walked me to my apartment, a floor-through two blocks from the house where I grew up. I was sharing the three rooms with another newly divorced bachelor. He and I avoided each other like a couple of closet lepers.
I collapsed on my bed. As senior partner I got use of the bedroom, while my roommate had to make do with the alcove that formed part of a large L-shaped living room. This meant I was exposed to occasional family feuds echoing through the air shaft onto which my bedroom faced, while Jeremy had to deal with street noise. But I didn't think anything could disturb my sleep that night, making the mistake of thinking I was drunker than I actually was. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I came wide awake, my skull buzzing with bits of my conversation with Mack and the figure of my aging self in that mirror behind the bar.
At some point in the school year, I teach my class the concept of isometry. It simply means "equal in measurement." But it's always surprising to my students when they learn that, while the image in a mirror may be isometrically identical to the person it reflects, that reflection is different from the way other people see the person "in real life"—sometimes very different. Right in the mirror becomes left outside it, left becomes right. It's remarkable how much this means to a person's appearance. A good-looking guy becomes homely, an ordinary woman starts to look interesting. I bring a mirror to class and ask for volunteers. The way the faces of their classmates turn into strangers in that mirror inevitably produces lots of merriment and even the occasional fight.
It wasn't much consolation, though, to realize that if I had seen 15 gray hairs in McFadden's mirror, there would only be that many, not more or less, actually on my head. Nor did it help a lot to know my male-pattern baldness extended just so far up my scalp as it did in the mirror and no farther. I was starting to look middle-aged. Women would no longer see me the way they did in my college days. Kids would start to call me sir. I was turning into my father.
I badly wanted to sleep, but sleep seemed to be the last thing my brain wanted.
Someone shouted something in Spanish directly into the air shaft. I kept thinking about isometry, not just the kind that occurs in mirrors but the way people can be isometric to each other. Mack and me, for instance. He was a good listener and gave good advice. I was neither. He was a straight-shooter, meant what he said, would make a good husband. I seemed to lack all those qualities. We kind of mirrored each other. You could even think of us as a single entity, he the presentable original and me the distorted reflection in the mirror.
I liked this train of thought. I've often thought that with a bit more encouragement, I might have made a pretty fair philosopher, or at least a decent research scientist, instead of just a junior high school babysitter.
I decided my roommate and I were isometric, too. He was used to not having his way, and I was the opposite. That's how I came to get the bedroom. I just claimed it, and he didn't have it in him to object. He was my weaker-willed mirror image.
And then there was Eva. Were we not isometric enough, not sufficiently compatible, not mirror-image enough, to make a go of it in the long term? She, principled and courageous. I, neither. She doesn't need a lot of emotional maintenance. I do. She gets most of what she needs from her work. I only work to pay the bills. Does that kind of difference really indicate compatibility, or was I just playing the sophist? More likely, I was just still hammered.
I haven't said yet why Eva and I broke up. It wasn't only because of my loneliness while she put in those long hours helping the poor and defenseless. It was, but I probably would have put up with it—I had plenty of homework assignments to grade and lesson plans to prepare—if I didn't make a stupid mistake and destroy the one thing that meant more to me than anything else ever has or ever will again.
Life is complicated. It isn't easily compassed by the sort of things they teach you in Sister Mary Margaret's class or the one-issue mentality of the J-SOCers. Looking back, I like to think I would not have done what I did had circumstances been a bit different. But looking back is easy—painful but easy. Everything that goes into an individual decision... that's where the complication comes in.
I cheated on Eva. That's the long and short of it, the uncomplicated version. To make it worse, I cheated with Ruthie, Eva's college roommate, someone I didn't even feel sexually attracted to. Eva had invited her to stay with us after Ruthie moved to New York and had trouble finding work in her field—art history. There we were, the three of us under one roof and one bedroom. Ruthie slept on our futon sofa, until the night the two of us ended up there naked while Eva was hard at work saving humanity.
You would think one of us, the husband or best friend, would have put a stop to what happened before the fact. I didn't love Eva any less than I did the day I married her, and Ruthie had no reason to hurt her friend, aside maybe for envy of Eva's happily married state and exciting career—which is a lot to discount, come to think of it. And, since when do spouses only cheat on their partners when they no longer love them? Who would ever feel remorse over a failed relationship if that were the case?
Ruthie didn't take a lot of persuading. A bottle of white wine, a few hours down time till Eva was due home, and there we were, giggling like a couple undergraduates as we gradually undressed each other, pretending that was all we intended to do. Enter Eva earlier than expected—though not all that much earlier, the wine and sex having knocked out both Ruthie and myself for the better part of an hour. In flagrante, as they say.
This is the story I haven't been able to confess to Father Flaherty, aka my friend Mack. Confession is supposed to cleanse the soul, give you a new start. But that's old-fashioned confession in a dark box with a priest who doesn't know who you are. Mack, the half-Jew, my mirror image, should be the ideal person to hear my sins. It should be like confessing to my better self.
Only, I have no better self, not even by proxy. The only feeling I have about this subject is shame. Too much shame to speak about what I did and risk the arch look Mack assumes when something strikes him in a moral, or immoral, way. Like many graduates of Catholic schools, Mack has a clerical way of carrying himself, especially in his facial expressions. I, on the other hand, have always been taken for a Jew, not just in college but afterward as well when I was making no pretense to be one and the person involved didn't know my last name. I can't bear the thought of Mack turning that clerical look on me. I'd rather get it from the deity at the Last Judgment.
Why did I do what I did with Ruthie? No saint has flagellated himself with whips and chains more than I have with that question. Why would an otherwise intelligent person throw away the only good relationship he's ever had with the opposite sex? For a few moments drunken excitement with someone he doesn't even find attractive?
I spoke to my father once about my marriage just after Eva and I had separated—she started to pack up her belongings as soon as she discovered me and Ruthie on that futon. I insisted on her keeping the apartment. She could walk to work. I had a half-hour subway commute to my job. Besides, how could I stay in that place without her? Every object, even the walls and ceiling, would remind me of what I had done.
My father is old-school. Eva and I breaking up made no more sense to him than if I said I had joined a cult and was moving to Colorado. "What are you, meshugana?" He rarely uses Yiddish except for the handful of words that are part of the vocabulary of everybody in this city, so I knew he thought I had done something really dumb. "Marriage isn't something you try on for a few days and put back on the rack if it doesn't fit perfect. You think your mother and I didn't have some bumps in the road? You think it's always ice cream and cake, romance and roses?" I let him go through the whole litany of platitudes. They weren't platitudes for him, of course. He had lived what he was preaching. And I knew he was right: I was a shmuck.
But I never said a word to him or to anyone else about what happened with Ruthie. Nor has Eva, as far as I can tell, though she has every right to. What I do know and sort of understood all along was that with a woman like Eva, there would be no second chance, no opportunity for excuses about long evenings with no company but my lesson plans and a frustrated libido. For her the moral world is binary: right and wrong, justice and injustice, fidelity and infidelity. I don't mean she's a moral fanatic. She wept and screamed like any woman would. And I'd half-convinced myself our marriage didn't mean as much to her as it did to me.
So here I am, 30 going on 50, with nothing more to look forward to than an endless stack of homework assignments worthy of a Sisyphus. Eva will remarry. Or not. What she will have is her work, something she believes in deeply. Mack will start a family and do well at it. Instead of children of my own, I'll be a kind of uncle to Mack's.
That's the best-case scenario, the one I console myself with in my most maudlin moments. What really happens in the second half of my life could be just as unpredictable as what happened in the first. Just as likely it will be much like what's already in the books, the young man father to the middle-aged one, the man in the mirror all too similar to the one on the barstool where I now spend far too much time. All I have in the way of friends is Mack. I've never had many. Eva was the closest friend I ever had.
Mack tells me I'm still a young man, that I'll meet someone else. Anything's possible. But I'll never be the man I was when I had Eva. Loving her and, more importantly, being loved by her, made me more than I was, an enhanced version of my real self. Now I'm just a bad reflection of that man, one seen darkly or, better yet, in a cracked glass.
Maybe that's enough self-knowledge for one person, enough to make him wise up, knuckle down, and do what he has some talent for and stay away from what he has no business messing with. I already have plans for a science fair my suck-up principal will be more than happy to propose to the district superintendent as his own. With any luck I'll be remembered as one of those teachers a handful of students recall as having made a difference in their lives.
Maybe that should be enough.