Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Retrospect Project 3: Beth Kander

That’s What Friends Are For
By Beth Kander

(Read her introduction here.)

Ah, thirteen. The age of secret crushes, awkward body changes galore, and insecurities so pumped up it’s like they’re on ‘roids. Thirteen is basically a year you want to survive, and then erase. What makes the whole survive-and-erase tactic difficult for those of us who number among the Chosen People is the fact that thirteen is also the year of the Bat (or Bar) Mitzvah. Thus, in my middle school years, many hours were spent studying for my own Bat Mitzvah, and attending the B-Mitzvah ceremonies of my handful of Jewish friends. I had Torah verses to learn, orthodontia to work around, and inevitably, an epic crush on one of my Hebrew School classmates.  

He had a biblical name; for purposes of anonymity, let’s say it was Abel. (It wasn’t. No one is named Abel.) He had giant glasses and perfect teeth – the lucky bastard! – and sandy-colored hair that fell onto his horn-rimmed frames. He wore Cosby sweaters and a watch. He looked like a miniature grown-up. The consistent cracking of his voice did mar the illusion, but only a little. 

While the other two boys in our class drew boobs on the matriarchs in our textbooks and looked up swear-words in the Hebrew dictionary, Abel sat with the other brainy girl (let’s call her Peninah, because how many Peninahs do you know?) and me, and the three of us actually went over the prayers we were supposed to be learning. We were the Goody-Goods, but it was more than that: we each carried some extra adolescent baggage. Abel was bullied at school; Peninah was painfully shy; I was enrolled in an “alternative distance learning” program (aka hippie version of homeschooling). In other words, we were the hard core nerds.
Once, for a class project, we had to film a news segment covering “Breaking News of the Bible.” Of course, Peninah, Abel and I worked together. We borrowed a giant old camcorder the approximate size and weight of Texas, created a set for the news desk of WJEW (I wish I were kidding), and filmed our segment. I don’t remember what Breaking Biblical News we covered. I do remember that Abel and I were the news anchors, and when we sat down behind the desk, he complimented my haircut. It was the early 90s; I had just gotten The Rachel; I thanked God and “Friends” that Abel finally noticed something about me beyond my mad Hebrew skills.

December 10, 1994: Abel’s Bar Mitzvah.  His was the first in our class. We all attended the service, watching in terror, knowing we were next. He wore a bright red suit with a black tie. I’d never seen anyone but Santa wear a red suit before, and I seriously doubted that Santa attended many Bar Mitzvahs. Still, Abel pulled off the red suit with aplomb. His voice cracked its way through the service and he did all his nerd friends proud. After the luncheon, there was a recess; his party wasn’t starting until dinnertime, so I went over to Peninah’s to hang out for the afternoon. We curled each other’s hair, put on our fanciest dresses (hers had sequins, mine probably incorporated a vest of some kind), and she assured me over and over that Abel would DEFINITELY ask me to slow-dance at his Bar Mitzvah party. 

The party was in the synagogue’s social hall. Red and black balloons, matching Abel’s distinctive suit, crowded every table. There was pizza, there were glow sticks, and there was a deejay with a ridiculously big moustache, who was playing Ace of Base like they were going out of style. (They were.)
The slow dances were few and far between – and though Abel enthusiastically bounced around the dance floor flailing his glow sticks during the fast numbers, he seemed to disappear for the slow ones. Finally, it was midnight, December 11, 1994: my thirteenth birthday. Peninah came up to tell me that her parents were ready to leave – and they were my ride, so I had to go, too. We went to find Abel to say one last mazel tov. Right as we walked up to him, something magical happened.

“Let’s slow it down for a minute,” said the deejay, smiling beneath the ‘stache. 
“Want to dance?” Abel asked me.
I looked wildly at Peninah. She nodded, go for it! Her parents would wait! This was THE MOMENT!  Abel put his hands on my waist. I put my hands on his red-suited shoulders. There was definitely plenty of room between us. We began to sway, stiffly, moving rather like migrating penguins. I wanted to tell him I liked him. That I LIKED-HIM liked-him. Instead, I said: “It’s my birthday.”

“It is? I didn’t know today was your birthday,” Abel said.
“Not today – I mean, tonight – like, right now –  because, y’know, it’s after midnight – and my birthday is the eleventh, so technically I’m thirteen now…” Dear heaven above, why do I sound so stupid?
“Oh, I gotcha,” said Abel. “Well. Happy birthday, Beth.”
I pictured a birthday kiss, a confession of his love, my own first moment as a teenager somehow managing to transcend the requisite angst and instead be a moment of something beautiful. But there was nothing; he just smiled at me, I smiled back, and we continued our awkward-penguins routine until the last notes of the song. Then I ran off to find Peninah so we could get into her parents’ mini-van and begin dissecting every moment of what had just happened.
I never did tell Abel how I felt about him, which wound up being okay, because a few years later, he told the world how he felt about men: turns out, he felt like sleeping with them. That would be true of many of my closest male friends in the coming years – but luckily, after Abel, I only fell for guys who were actually interested in persons of my gender. And now, looking back at my awkward unrequited love, I have to smile. The song Abel and I danced to that night was “That’s What Friends Are For.” I mean, seriously. The truth was right in front of my eyes, jumping around with glow sticks, wearing a bright red suit. Thirteen-year-old-me would have been humiliated to learn that my epic crush was probably checking out the guys snorting Faygo at the table behind us as we danced. But almost-thirty-year-old me is glad that we nerds had each other … even if we didn’t really know who we were yet. 

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5 bonus points:

Anonymous said...

I like that the ads appearing at the bottom of this post include "Bar/Bat Mitzvah Invites," "Oy! Such a Cute Favor (Adorable Bar Mitzvah favors)" and "Designer Frames."

Rachel said...

"who was playing Ace of Base like they were going out of style. (They were.)"


Jill/Twipply Skwood said...

Very sweet and very funny! I wish I had realized there were other types of bar mitzvah parties for my boy besides the DJ dancing kind. He would rather have had laser tag or paint ball or pretty much anything but dancing. I think the poor DJ at his worked HARD. But oh well.

dramamama said...

love this. so sweet, funny, touching.

Anonymous said...

i like your writin' style

and your stories


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