Content warning: this story includes a depiction of sexual violence.
SALIM PEERS THROUGH the peephole in the men’s room in Temple B’nai Moshe and sees two girls standing side by side at the row of sinks in the ladies’ bathroom. One is tall and slim with golden hair that cups her scalp like a swim cap. The other is several inches shorter with a belly that lolls over her skirt like a tongue. Her hair is stringy, her shoulders beefy. The golden girl rolls her sleeves up past the elbow and soaps her hands while her lips move in prayer. Her movements are fluid. They make him think of water, of currents chugging downstream and sunlight flickering through a canopy of leaves. The other girl reminds him of his mother whose face is a desert of lines, deep and parched, a patchwork of disappointments. He closes his eyes and when he opens them the girls are gone.
He is seventeen. The same age as the students who attend Bnos Rivkah, an all-girl yeshiva that rents rooms on the second floor of the temple. He has never known girls like these. Their skin is like milk. They wear their hair in ponytails. Their ears glitter with diamond studs. They smell of weekly allowances and strawberry lip balm. He isn’t allowed near them. He isn’t allowed to look at them. He sweeps the floor, replaces burnt bulbs and damaged ceiling tiles; he cleans the bathrooms.
Ruchie, did you hear? Faygie’s engaged. Yocheved, are you coming for Shabbos? Their conversations wash over him like rain. He’s worked in the building for three months. Sometimes when he’s in the hall, he imagines they’re sending him a signal with a toss of a head, a swing of a hip, a pursing of lips; he hasn’t yet been able to decipher their secret code.
The door creaks and he jumps off the toilet seat and grabs hold of the floor mop. His father walks in, slapping his hands together.
“Salim, you’ve got to work faster. Don’t make me fire your ass.” He flashes his teeth. They cost seventeen hundred dollars, implanted by a distant relative from Syria who set up shop in a fifth-floor walkup on McDonald Avenue, flush against the elevated tracks. Last month his father took him to the same dentist, a rough-looking forty year old with a Valentino mustache, a photograph of his wife and five kids on the wall, all of them glistening as if they’d been greased for the occasion. When he used the drill, Salim felt like the D train was barreling through his head.
He clenches his jaw. “I’ll be done soon, Dad-man.”
“What is this Dad-man business? You got to talk English.”
His father jabs a knuckle hard into Salim’s forehead, then ruffles his hair. The man is full of vicious affection. Salim tries not to grimace at the pain. His father preens in the mirror. He’s unable, Salim thinks, to see things as they really are: the ravaged face, the tarnished whites of his eyes. Once he was well groomed, hair polished to a Brylcreem shine, aftershave steaming off his neck, pinky nails sharpened to a point (a leftover from his boyhood days when he ran with a gang in the streets of Haret el Yahud, the Jewish quarter in Damascus). He was someone to fear then, someone who would watch your back.
Salim remembers how his mother’s sisters gave his father the eye. They came to the house wearing floral skirts and gold bangles, kissed Salim’s cheek, pinched his ass, gave his balls a quick pat. He’s growing up, God bless him. His father sent them a knowing look and made sure to squeeze past them down the narrow hall between the kitchen and living room. They squawked like hens when he crushed them against the wallpaper. His cheerful brutality was alarming, but they never complained. His mother watched, quiet in that way Salim hated, like she was sinking into a well and it was no use calling out or sending down a rope. Her retreat into silence left Salim panicked and ashamed.
There are oil stains on his father’s shirt—a struggle with the boiler. His belly jiggles over the cheap belt bought on East Second from the Mitzri, the Egyptian—another Jew with an embarrassing trace of Africa in his veins. When his father bends down to clean his shoes, Salim sees the crack of his ass. Bastard. He recalls how his father danced the dubkah at a neighbor’s wedding—shaking his butt, jerking his shoulders, beckoning all to look. They looked and remembered whose grandson he was, whose hand their grandfathers kissed, the great Baba Salim, chief rabbi of Damascus. No one in his family remarks on the short distance between honor and disgrace. They’re glad they made it to Brooklyn alive.
“Pick up your pants.” Salim has the urge to spit.
His father laughs. “Drop a quarter in my slot, see what pops out.”
Pig, Salim thinks, keeping his expression blank.
His father splashes water on his face, blows his nose into his hands. He puts on a clean shirt, brushes the dust from his trousers with a moist paper towel. Salim feels a headache coming on.
“Where you going now?” he asks.
“Out,” his father says.
“Since when are you the baba?” His father cuffs him across the jaw, not hard, but with enough force to let him know who’s boss.
Salim stuffs his hands into his pockets, tempted to shove his father’s smiling face into the mirror.
“Tell your mother I’ll be home later.”
“You tell her.”
“Don’t start.” His father blisters him with a look. “Finish the fucking job.”
Salim grips the mop.
At the end of the day, girls billow out of the classrooms. They drug him with their musk. He imagines a film of Talmudic text over their hair and skin. Given the chance he would read them like commentaries. Their chatter is loud, raucous like his aunts’. He stands in the hall with his broom, white knuckled. A girl knocks into him, mutters Sorry, and speeds away. It’s the golden-haired girl from the bathroom. His skin grows clammy.
He regards them all from beneath his lashes. He smells the sharpness of his own flesh and can almost hear their nostrils flare in disgust as they pass by him, careful not to touch him. He wishes he smelled more like them. He wishes he weren’t so dark—not so much an Arabische Yid, an Arab Jew.
They exit and the building is smaller. He sifts through the clothes they leave behind—sweaters, hoodies—sniffs their sneakers, lifts the sleeve of a cardigan to his cheek. He picks up a prayer book and bows right and left. He takes his time going from room to room. All of them are in shambles, as if the act of learning has been riotous. Chairs are overturned, books are on the floor, balls of paper are strewn near the garbage bin. He picks up candy wrappers, protractors, empty cans of baby corn, bags of salad and kosher Italian dressing. There’s a coffee spill on a desk. He lifts a copy of Huck Finn: You don’t know me…, he recites and puts it in a cubby. He finds loose change and pockets it, notes on the French Revolution, polynomials, and symbioses. He works methodically, goes from desk to desk. He finds a tube of moisturizing cream and takes it for his sister, Amira, who is thirteen and reads books like Anne of Green Gables. She sits on the good chair in the salon with her legs tucked under her; her kneecaps gleam like river stones.
In the last room there are shelves with books on Navi and Chumash. He’s read these texts on the prophets, on the Exodus, on Moses the deliverer. Salim kisses the binding of one, the jacket cover of another, and pictures himself in the synagogue in Damascus with its stucco walls, wooden pews and holy ark carved of wood and mother-of-pearl inlay. His great-grandfather is beside him dressed in a white Sabbath robe and fez, rheumy-eyed, fingers grasping a Torah pointer. He reads the weekly parsha; the temple is quiet as the congregation strains to hear the Baba Salim. Later he blesses them, and after Havdalah when the braided candle is lit and the spices are sniffed and they wish each other a good week, they form a line outside his house at the end of a cul-de-sac where an almond tree perfumes the yard. Night descends, and for a moment they forget the incendiary streets outside the Jewish quarter. Women ask the baba to cure them of infertility. Men ask for business advice and dispensations. Students question the knotty arguments in the Gemara. They want to know what Rashi said and what Maimonides had to say about redemption and retribution.
Salim sweeps the garbage into a pile. He thinks of the upcoming Sabbath and the synagogue on Ocean Parkway, the one his father insists on attending so that he can be seen in the company of rich men. The columns at the entrance make Salim feel small. He listens to his father talk to the men who were with them on the last convoy out of Damascus in ’92. They had gotten off the plane in their checkered shirts and polyester slacks, their round-faced children and tired wives tumbling after them, blinking at the cold New York sun. They sit in the last rows of the temple, prayer books open on their laps, watching the backs of the millionaires in the front pews. They talk business between the Amidah and Kaddish prayers, and in tones that sound like the shuffling of crisp hundred-dollar bills they say, I’ll get you a good deal. His father tells them about his company, Damascus Maintenance, how the contracts are rolling in. They look at the pilling on his suit and return to their prayers. Salim grits his teeth and wonders since when have he and his broom become a corporation.
On the blackboard he writes, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Someday he wants to go back to school, though his father says that a man needs only a good strong arm and the ability to count to do business, unless he is going to be a rabbi or a doctor. To his father, all rabbis and doctors are crooks, even the Baba Salim who collected donations and pocketed a percentage. Everyone is out to screw everyone else. Salim’s heart sinks when his father talks to him about the nature of men. His mother, who rarely looks him in the eye, promises this job will last only a short while, but he’s been working with his father for two years already. Until the debts are cleared, she says, until they get their green cards for which they have to pay a lawyer, a shamie, a Damascus Jew, whose family emigrated before ’48, before all hell broke loose over there and the arrests began. His father hates the shamie, though he would hate him more if he were a halabi, from Aleppo. Lawyers, he says, are the worst crooks.
Salim erases the blackboard. Sometimes he thinks he’d like to be a teacher, to stand in front of the yeshiva girls and talk to them about Huck Finn, which he’s read twice. He’d tell them that he is like Jim, snatched from his home, lost and running. Sunlight would fall on the girls and their cheeks would glow the way morning sparkles off bits of glass in the asphalt. Identity is a stone, he’d say. They’d write these words in their notebooks, pens hissing like insects scuttling across paper. America is a river that wears it away. The girl with the golden hair would raise her hand, her sleeve pooling below her elbow. “So the loss of identity is a geological phenomenon?”
“Aren’t we all stones?” she’d ask.
“No. The lucky few are water.” He’d decide right then to marry her.
At night he’d tell her what was in his mind: the one-sided conversations, bits of music, strains of the oud floating through deserted alleys, the driving beat of the tarabuka drum like the pounding of a stick on the ground, the rancid smoke of burning tires, the sound of doors closing, glass shattering, the shouting voices of his parents, the way his mother withdraws behind a fortress of silence he cannot scale, the way his father leers at women, at the yeshiva girls when he believes no one is looking. She’d get it—all that destruction imaginary and real living like a twin inside him.
A shoe scrapes against the linoleum; his broom crashes to the floor. He turns in fear as a girl enters the classroom. She’s startled to see him but quickly composes herself, brushing the hair off her forehead.
“Are they all gone?” She releases the barrette at her nape. Her mousy hair is lifeless around her shoulders.
It takes him a moment to understand what she’s saying, to realize that she’s not part of his inner landscape, not the girl with the cap of golden hair. She is the other girl, the short, chubby one.
“Do you speak English?” She looks him over, starting at the sneakers he found in a bin at a discount store, one shoe a size larger than the other, and ends her exploration at his brow. He rubs his palms on the back of his jeans.
“Yeah,” he says, disappointed. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a secret,” she says.
She isn’t beautiful. Her eyes are gray. There are pimples on her chin and her face is long. She is almost fat and her skin is greasy. He feels a stirring of rage. For months all he’s thought about is approaching one of the yeshiva girls. He’s practiced talking to them, showing off the Hebrew he knows and the English he’s taught himself. He could read to them from the Torah or from any one of the texts they pore over. He could recite a few psalms by heart and wear the yarmulke the Baba Salim wore on weekdays. He takes the yarmulke out of his back pocket and puts it on. He wants to show her that he is more than just the boy with the broom. She pulls a bag out from the bottom of the large armoire against the back wall.
“Is that a kippah?” Her voice is muffled as she takes off her running shoes and puts on a pair of high heels.
She rolls the waistband of her long skirt until the hem reaches above her knees.
“Are you from around here?” she asks.
She smears on lip gloss. Her mouth looks wet.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
She looks at him with suspicion. “Why?”
“It’s what you asked me.”
She shrugs, “So?”
His shoulders feel tight. He can’t help staring at her.
“What? Not pretty enough for you?”
When he doesn’t answer she says, “Doesn’t matter. Some boys think I’m pretty.”
“What boys?” he asks.
“Just boys.” She turns away.
He thinks maybe she’s lying and feels rotten about his earlier thoughts. She isn’t so bad. “I don’t think anything, except that you’re here after school, putting on make-up. You meeting a boy now?”
“None of your business what I do.”
“Okay.” He lifts his broom and sweeps, moving the pile of dirt closer to the bin.
“Are you going to tell anyone you saw me?” She puffs up with fright. “They wouldn’t believe you.”
He imagines slapping her hard across the mouth and grips the broom until his palms burn. He shakes his head.
She exhales. “You’re the cleaning boy?”
Even in high heels she barely reaches his shoulders. Her skin is a buttery yellow under the light. She looks like a baby chick he once saw running loose in the souk.
“I thought yeshiva girls weren’t allowed to talk to boys?” His hands are shaking.
“Why are you talking to me?” he asks.
“I’m not talking to you. You’re talking to me.” She combs her hair.
Salim laughs, a shrill sound. She ignores him, stuffs her books into a cubby, picks the dirt from under her nails, then blots the oily spots around her nose and chin with her sleeve. When she’s done she looks about helplessly, then opens the doors of the armoire and sits inside it, leaning against the rabbis’ coats. Her legs stick out in front of her; they’re surprisingly slender for a chubby girl.
“What are you doing in there?” he asks, hesitant, afraid she’ll get angry and leave.
She looks up at him. “Can you keep a secret?”
“Sure.” He leans forward, everything in him alert.
“I don’t want to go home yet.”
“Why? Don’t you have enough of this place?”
She doesn’t answer and takes her time pulling a cigarette out of her bag. She lights up. Her eyes squint against the smoke. He tells himself there’s no need to feel anxious, but he worries nonetheless, afraid he’ll be the one accused of stinking up the books and coats and losing his father this contract. The thought makes him feel sick.
“I’ve seen you around,” she says, waving the hand with the cigarette. “We all have. Just so you know, no one thinks you’re handsome. But you’re the only boy around, so we look.”
He kicks a hair clip across the floor.
“Want a cigarette?” She picks a piece of tobacco off her lip.
“You’re not allowed to do that in here.” He winces, knowing he sounds like an idiot, but he’s flooded with images of the rabbis complaining to his father that the room with the holiest texts smells of cigarettes. He’s reminded of his father’s punishments—painful object lessons that use whatever object is in the room.
“Who’s going to tell? You?” She peels open a pack of gum and sticks two pieces into her mouth. She takes a drag without inhaling and blows smoke into a bubble. When it pops, a puff bursts into the air. She laughs. “I’ve been practicing that for weeks.”
He gives her a weak smile, gazes at her legs, then looks away.
“I have good legs,” she says.
“Sit down already.” She points to the spot beside her. “You’re making me nervous standing over me like that.”
They sit in silence. The smoke irritates his eyes, but he doesn’t move. He barely breathes.
“I’m getting married in two months. Right after school ends.”
He turns to her, surprised, thinking this is her secret. She stares straight ahead. Her hair touches his shoulder. He wonders if he should move it, afraid she’ll think he’s being forward.
“A boy.” She takes a deep drag and coughs.
“Have you met him?”
“No. Our grandmothers knew each other in some screwy village in Romania. Their husbands were butchers together.”
“That’s our way, too.” He focuses on the books on the shelf. “My parents grew up next door to each other.” The gold leaf letters waver before assembling into titles.
“He’s coming over tonight. My fi-an-cé. Him and his parents. For a formal introduction and a l’chaim. ” she says.
“Is that why you don’t want to go home?” When she doesn’t answer, he asks, “Don’t you want to meet him?”
She shrugs and then turns to Salim. “Are you engaged?”
“No. I’m not even a citizen,” he says.
“How come you’re so dark? You’re Jewish, right? Or did you steal that kippah?”
“I don’t steal. I’m the same as my great-grandfather. He was a great rabbi, the Baba Salim, better than any butcher.” He says this through his teeth.
She crushes the cigarette butt under her heel. “Calm down. So you’re an Arab Jew. Do you know there are Jews blacker than you are?” She seems impressed by the incongruity, then leans back further into the coats until only her legs are visible. She takes a mirror out of her handbag and looks at herself solemnly. “Does it bother you being so dark?”
“I like it.” Her voice is soft.
“Sure,” he says, but something in him begins to race.
“I do. It’s different. Look at my skin.”
“Like buttermilk,” he blurts, then squeezes his eyes shut at her laughter, feeling like he’s being pried open.
He slides further into the closet and draws his knees up, then closes one of the doors. She pivots toward him and pulls her knees up, too, resting her chin on her hands. They face each other; the noses of their shoes touch. The coats flatten against the back wall of the armoire. His eyes fall on the white strip of her panties. His gaze is riveted there.
“Have you ever seen this boy, your fiancé?” He wishes she would close the other door.
“Only in a picture.”
“What does he look like?”
“Tall, blond. My mother says he has blue eyes and good teeth. He looks like a nice boy.”
Salim feels an ache in his chest. “You like him?”
“I don’t know him.”
“You like me? Don’t answer. Don’t answer.” He ducks his head.
There is something sly and earnest in her gaze, a coyness he doesn’t understand. “I disappoint you,” she says.
“No.” He stretches his arm toward her, then snaps it back.
“When I first walked in I did.”
He flicks his hand, telling her without words that what happened earlier means nothing now.
“It’s so dark I can hardly see you,” she says.
“Better this way.”
“Easier. We’re more alike in the dark.” After a moment he asks, “Why don’t you want to go home? Why don’t you want to meet him?”
She doesn’t answer.
“Tell me.” His hand slides along the floor until it reaches her ankle.
She freezes at his touch, then in a small voice says, “What if he doesn’t like me?”
“How do you know?”
While Salim searches for an answer she continues, “I get so angry. Especially when I’m home.”
“I don’t know. Soon as I walk in I’m ready to explode. You ever feel that?”
“Sure,” he says.
“My house is so crowded. There’s more room in here.”
“Don’t,” she says. “I got six brothers and sisters. Sometimes it’s fun. Mostly it’s just loud. My mom’s always tired. Dad comes home to eat, then goes out again to study until late at night. I hardly ever see him. She’s left there with the laundry piling up, dishes piling up, children piling up. I feel buried under her mountain. She wants me married. She can’t wait; it’s all she talks about. One less pile.”
His eyes strain to see the strip of her panty. “My mom’s like a magician,” he says.
“She can make herself invisible, ’specially when my dad’s around.”
“How does she do that?”
He tugs on a shoelace. “She gets real quiet and then sort of disappears.” He leans forward. “You pray?”
“Every morning. So what?” She picks at a loose thread on her skirt. “It isn’t going to help. Just the way things are.”
“You want to pray? I know how,” he says.
“Now? Are you kidding?”
“Why?” she asks.
“So I can show you.”
She smiles. “All right,” and begins to recite a psalm he doesn’t know.
“Not that one.” He can feel her eyes on him.
Inside the armoire the smell of mothballs seeps out of the wool coats like a gas. He wants to be with her in a place with no light, where it doesn’t matter if their eyes are open or closed. He stretches his right arm toward the open door beside her and pulls it shut.
She cries out.
“Shh, it’s okay,” he says and recites the psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept.” He runs his left hand along her leg, the heat of it against his fingertips. He imagines himself dressed in an embroidered silk robe and fez. His voice fills the armoire the way the Baba Salim’s voice filled the temple. He places his other hand on her thigh. His eyes are shut. Her skin is velvet. He wonders if she’s fallen asleep. She is so quiet. He recites the prayer for sleep and the prayer for travel, edging nearer; their knees bump. He’s jumbled the words, but she doesn’t correct him. She listens to his voice lift and drop in a cadence that is nothing like her ground-down t’s that have been turned into s’s and her o’s that have been crushed into oy’s. His is the language closest to God’s. She says something he doesn’t quite catch. He wants to tell her that he’s a better man than his father, as good as the Baba Salim.
“I’m going to study Torah for you,” he says and moves to sit beside her, the coats draped around them.
One side of his body presses against hers. His mouth brushes her ear.
She mumbles something about opening the door, that it’s getting hard to breathe.
“It’s okay” he says. “When it’s this dark you feel like you’re suspended in water.”
“Please, I have to go.” She reaches for the door panel. “My mother will worry. I told her I was at a friend’s house. She’s probably called there looking for me.”
He snakes an arm around her waist. “Close your eyes.”
“I’m scared of the dark. Please open the door,” she says.
His heart swells. “I’ll take care of you. I promise. Like the Baba Salim. Don’t worry,” he tells her in Arabic, forgetting himself for a moment. “This is the best place. This is where I want to be. With you.” He nuzzles her neck, smelling her scent, like the musk of a small animal.
“I think you better let me out.” Her voice is tremulous.
“Ana bahebak, I love you,” he says.
There are tears in her eyes. No one has ever cried for him, not even his mother. He draws her face toward his and kisses her mouth. His hands curve along the tender flesh of her cheeks. She jerks against him, whimpering, and tries to push him away. She cries out. He wonders if maybe she is a tease, the kind of girl his father warns him about. His hands tighten, holding her head steady.
He kisses her eyelids, tastes her tears. He will make her love him more than the boy she’s engaged to. “You have to stop,” he tells her.
“Let me out,” she screams.
He pulls her onto his lap and recites a prayer to calm her. She tries to kick him. He grabs hold of her legs. Her cries fill the armoire. He buries his head in the rabbinic coats. “Shut up, shut up,” he says, and clasps his free hand over her mouth. All of her flush against him, making him sweat. He can almost hear his father chuckling, Look at her squirm like a sharmutta.
“Stop acting like that.” The palm of his hand is wet from her breath and saliva. “If someone finds us,” he hisses into her ear, “you’ll get a bad reputation.” His hand bears down firmly over her mouth. Her eyes flash in the bar of light coming through the bottom of the closet door. “You think I can’t take care of you? You’ll see, when my father comes I’ll tell him we’re getting married. Let him try to separate us. I’ll kill him.”
He rocks her back and forth, clutching her hard, eyes closed, and pictures her dull hair falling over one shoulder, the long white face, her gray eyes blinking shut. She slumps against him, quiet now, no more struggle. They are so close he feels like he could slip through the border of her skin. Her breath is soft in slumber, the weight of her against him a comfort. How could he have questioned the rightness of her? She is everything he’s ever wanted. When she wakes, he’ll tell her that one day soon they will go to Damascus, to the synagogue, to the house he once lived in. She will know him through the winding streets that smell of smoke and almonds.
“Tomorrow, we’ll tell your mother you love me.” He brushes the hair off her brow. “And when she asks, Who are you? I’ll say, You don’t know me, but I’m the great-grandson of the Baba Salim.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.