TC Jewfolk: Before the Next Yom Kippur

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.

My mistake.

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.

This post was written by Jenna Zark and originally published on TC Jewfolk. Follow TCJewfolk on Twitter: @tcjewfolk.

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