Yom Kippur is only 24 hours long, but for me it starts way before that. During the New Year, we observe the Tashlich ceremony by taking a handful of breadcrumbs, which stand in symbolically for any sins we want to throw away. We say a special prayer and throw the breadcrumbs into the water, trying to let go of past regrets. A few days later, we try to apologize to people we hurt and ask them to forgive us, so we can arrive at synagogue on the Day of Atonement with a minimum of baggage.
Every Tashlich I think about Susan. The first time I saw her we were both fourteen, walking into homeroom together. She wore a red leotard and had just the right amount of makeup and poise. After school I saw her smoking a cigarette, crushing it lightly under a heel with a gesture I wanted to imitate but couldn’t. It was practiced and at the same effortless. She was the apex of everything cool.
I was a much more awkward fourteen—pale and freckled, trying hard to get used to my contact lenses. I had no boyfriends while Susan had many, yet somehow, we became friends. Throughout high school, she was one of the only people I could talk to who actually listened to me. I don’t know that she was very happy—her parents were divorced and she sometimes drank and did harder drugs than other people at school—but she had an intensity and honesty I couldn’t find anywhere else.
After graduation, I went to college while Susan found a young man named Jimmy and married him. I saw them when I was home on vacations, and they looked beautiful together, tossing jokes at each other and laughing. They had a little boy and an Irish setter and teased me about having the same color hair as their dog.
A few years later I got married too, and my husband and I honeymooned at cottages owned by Jimmy’s parents in Camden, Maine. It was an idyllic holiday and they didn’t charge us a dime. Perhaps being up there, seeing the ocean and mountains and pines, made me think Susan’s life was idyllic too.
I can’t remember when she started telling me the truth about what was happening at home. I just remember picking up the phone one day and going still, hearing words like “bruises” and “black and “blue.” While she was talking I tried to picture Jimmy, sunny-faced Jimmy, throwing Susan down to the floor and kicking her.
She was pregnant with her second child. I went to see her and to see what I could do. It was close to Christmas time and the house was full of poinsettias. Susan looked up at me listlessly and I remember being shocked at how dark the circles were under her eyes. She talked about the violence, but with a baby coming she didn’t feel ready to pick up and leave. And no matter what I said, she was adamant. She wasn’t going anywhere.
After her son was born, things got worse, and Susan began to call more frequently. It was not a time when there were many domestic shelters (though she wouldn’t have gone even if there were) and the police seemed to be either unable or unwilling to help.
I tried to convince Susan to leave the marriage, though I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just go to her dad’s house, where I knew she would be welcome. I didn’t understand her pride, or wanting to make it work, or any number of reasons why she wouldn’t quit her husband. I wanted to beat him up myself, and I often felt helpless. After a while, when I saw that I couldn’t change anything, I just got too frustrated. And I turned away.
Instead of picking up the phone when my friend called, I let the machine get it. Sometimes I talked to her and told her things I wanted her to do. When she argued against them, I got upset and didn’t want to talk any more. After a while she stopped calling, and I didn’t make an effort to stay in touch.
When I moved to Minnesota I started thinking of her again, but by then it was too late; she disappeared. I have tried calling, but the number I had for Susan was disconnected, and she doesn’t seem to be on any of the social media sites.
Now she is everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes she wears a red leotard and is walking into class. Sometimes I imagine her in the dark when I come home, with flat, dead eyes looking up at the ceiling. At Tashlich this year I threw away all my breadcrumbs; but I know there is one that will stick to me; and unless I can find my friend, it always will.
On Yom Kippur, like everyone else in synagogue, I bring my own prayers and demons. I lay them on the floor of the sanctuary, looking down at my prayer book and intoning the words:
B’rosh Hashanah tik-a tay voon, B’yom tzom Kippur tik-a-tay moon. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
I see the words and think, this was not a mistake I made. It was more.
For the sin which we have committed before You in passing judgment…
For the sin which we have committed before You by a confused heart.
My heart was confused and frightened. I couldn’t figure out how to help my friend, so I abandoned her.
For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.
And God says, find her. And I say, I’d give anything to find her. Before the next Yom Kippur.