What it was was I wondered if I had the right to call it an assault.
zochreinu, zochreinu l’chaim.
But not yet. For the moment, I wanted to stay a hand’s length away from it—Jordan’s hands, in particular, which rested safe on my sides with a thumb pressing on each hip bone, which were warm, big, astonishingly soft. (“Whenever my mother put on her hand lotion when I was little,” he told me, “she let me have some too.”)
Surrounded by tiles that likely came in names like “sea-foam blue” and “sand,” the immersion pool was largely filled with filtered tap water. A deeper lower basin made it kosher, collecting rainwater, luxurious and heated. As children at synagogue, we toured it twice: when it first opened up, and then the year of our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, the same year we had “The Talk.” The mikveh was used to suggest the beauty of marriage, how wondrous it might be to prepare for that first coupling, even if we did not return to it for those after. Every bit of the mikveh experience was designed to highlight the holiness our religious school teachers told us. Before entering the room where the act itself occurred, one prepared in a large room with a shower and little folded hand towels along with all the other amenities you could imagine. Dutifully, each visitor would wash out all her scented hair mousse, take off her nail polish and her jewelry, and make it so the water would touch her entirety. When she was ready to dip under the water, an anonymous attendant would come in holding a towel over their eyes, lowering it only at the exact moment needed to ensure a legitimate immersion. Then they would leave, allowing the bride to bask in the water contemplating the beauty of her relationship with God and with her husband as long as she wished.
“Isn’t that magical,” they asked us, “sanctifying yourself for your love? Isn’t it a gorgeous way to prepare for pleasure?”
“And also,” they said, “conversions. Life transitions. Preholiday.” But marriage! Sex! Ah, the glory it was all made out to be. Yes, there were other reasons to go in the mikveh, but that was the only one I imagined, my only chance to be so blessed.
And though I was superstitious enough to never say out loud that I truly did think it would happen with Jordan, I still did not marry him. Thank God.
Everybody knew. Nobody knew. I thought we had the whole thing figured out, though we never gave it a name or made it official. (“We understand each other implicitly,” Jordan said. “Why limit ourselves with rules?”) We went to religious events with each other’s parents. We kept our tactful mutual friends. We sat in the back of each other’s choir concerts and went to the same football games and swam at our neighbors’ pools together and after, at night, in the dark, we would hum atonal chords, fit our bodies horizontally on someone’s couch, talk about the future. Jordan imagined the legacy university he would attend; sweating at softball games with a son; the day he might become lawyer, senator, opera singer, man. I’d listen in admiration, believing every word. Yes, this boy. Yes, that voice. Yes, the ability to convince anyone of anything. And we’d tell stories. We lamented over mothers who expected unreasonable things and constant involvement. We looked through photos. We exchanged back rubs. (“You keep all your tension in your neck.”) His parents took me to company dinners, boxes at the hockey games, the symphony. Around them, we held hands.
When it was more, it was with layers of clothing in between, tacit heated glances, whispered impurities, lips and lips and the skin already uncovered but nothing else. Never anything else. This, no one would have believed. Girls who wanted to be with him saw me as a threat; men who wanted to be with me called me “slut” in between undertones of his name when I rejected them. But I didn’t want more between us, not yet—how could I? The friction between our shirts and the way he kissed my neck turned me glacial and glittering; I could not have borne it going any further, or rushing past.
When he lost his virginity to someone else, it felt like choking, like trying to breathe underwater. He knew it was wrong, tried in his way to apologize. (“I have seen the world, Sophie. It disappointed me.”) And in our seasick sadness, for a brief second, we loved each other openly.
And for those moments, and branded into my memory, there was Jordan, next to me. Jordan singing along in the car to a CD he made just for me. Jordan as my co-counselor at camp, our song sessions always the loudest. Jordan telling me about colleges, the places he could see us together. Jordan at his Passover table, laughing as I ate the horseradish. Jordan lying on the floor, playing with my hair. Jordan kissing me and kissing me, tugging on my shirt. Jordan, always flirting with everyone else, squeezing my hand so I’d stay put, silent just where I was.
And then, Jordan, every day a new fight. Jordan, never listening to me. Jordan, ignoring my texts. Jordan, calling me a prude. Jordan, declaring his love for me. Jordan, lashing out. (“I have neither the time nor the patience to keep waiting until you figure out that you’re an adult.”)
And though he knew how to hurt me better than even myself, he never did it physically. Except for when he did.
When I did immerse in a mikveh of sorts, it was not how or when or where I’d imagined. It was not guided by an attendant or in any way religiously constructed. Driven by the invisible force of feeling impure and all wrong and not knowing what else to do about it, I simply went to the ocean on my own.
I took off all my jewelry. I chipped off my purple nail polish. I stayed dressed until I was already surrounded by the water, cold and stinging on my shaven legs, and held my phone in a sealed plastic bag with a transliteration of the right blessing up on the screen. Slipping off my dress once it floated and clutching it in one hand, I let the water embrace all parts of me.
On the first dip under, I forgot not to inhale. I said the words anyway, nostrils stinging as I became purified. Two more times, to ensure it was done right.
Submerged, I closed my eyes to try to see God. Initially, there was silence, only silence, the serenity of absence of thought. And then there was just me. This life. A porch. Lights. And him. Jordan, winking. Leaning over me. Speaking, an ethereal voice from nowhere. I searched my memory for his face and then—
I forgot about his lips. Their shape vanished from my mind. The water took their memory. They disappeared into the ritual.
I had not sealed the bag properly. The water surrounding me rushed in and filled it. I had to buy a new phone. I lost all of my contacts.
I didn’t get into the college he said he could see me in, but he did get in where his last name meant something. I stayed close to home to save on rent, and he lived on his campus ninety minutes away. We did not speak except for in small, cordial pieces—his confused grief over not getting in to the chamber choirs he wanted, my telling him about boyfriends he said I was giving my identity away for, the two of us saying we were still fated for one day, one day; it just wasn’t right back then. (“I got tired of your need to have dramatic discussions all the time. Why did you want so much to put labels on what we were and weren’t and could and couldn’t do all the time? Why wouldn’t you let us just be, no more and no less?”)
How did we get from best friends to hating each other, wounding each other? How, he asked, did I become so hateful? And I look back, and I wonder, what did I get wrong? Maybe he really did love me; it was I who made the mistakes. It could have been I who expected too much from him, who saw things when they weren’t there. Everything seemed destined to work. (“We always fit so well together.”) So what went wrong?
We thought over Thanksgiving break that we might figure it out together, lock ourselves in his basement and stay until it was all resolved. It hadn’t been right, we had said—so we ought then to figure out what, exactly, it was.
(“Can you believe it? All this time, and we’ve only done this much.”)
What it was was that the inevitable happened, and he wouldn’t stop putting his hands down my skirt no matter how many times I said no. What it was was that when I shouted, he told me to leave his house. What it was was that I got in my car and still thought I should be the one to apologize for seeing him. What it was was that everything smelled of his mother’s cotton-scented lotion. What it was was I wondered if I had the right to call it an assault.
Everybody knew. Nobody knew.
Over the next year, I trashed old journals, donated old shirts. I struggled to remember all the social media on which to block him, his name one day coming up on an email from a business-networking site and leaving me shuddering for the weekend. Our friends divided as if split in a divorce upon the line of belief, the majority favoring him. I thought about telling everyone. I did not. I heard what people said, how I was bitter he didn’t choose me, how we were always inevitable, how desperate I’d always been. I wondered if they were right. In many ways, erasing Jordan from my life was not something I could do at all.
Everybody knew. Nobody knew.
The holidays came late that fall, and I felt strange and uneasy around Yom Kippur as I thought about forgiveness and the only message I received from him after it happened. (“I did not mean to offend.”) I wanted to forget him entirely, and still I wanted an apology. Still I wanted understanding—but I could not take that from him, nor would I ever demand it. But I needed some form of closure, something, anything. If he could not give it, maybe I could give it to myself. I ached, trying to figure out where the whole thing fit in on the scale of atonement, listing daily all that I blamed myself for. (“You’re the one who never treated me fairly; don’t forget.”)
With him away at school, I rejoined the synagogue choir. As leader of the altos and now the only young person around at all, I took a special pride in being able to hold my section’s tight harmony without prompting. The women around me always leaned close to me and listened for the notes that I sang in order to correct themselves. I did not know if I felt inspired or believed in the sentiments of the songs, but with the Hebrew in my mouth and the chords in my head, I did, for a second, believe in myself again.
I studied the laminated sheet music we were sent home with every night, as if getting every note right on the holidays would absolve me of whatever I’d done wrong, whether I knew what that was or not. When Kol Nidre came, I wore a purple dress. Though I knew a professional soloist was hired every year to sing the eponymous prayer, I had been learning every run and grace note in secret. If, for some reason, something were to happen—the soloist got in an accident, caught pneumonia, slept past an alarm—I could step in at a moment’s notice. I knew it was a childish fantasy, but it had played in my head on repeat regardless: standing above the congregation in the choir loft, my voice alone spilling out over everyone, ethereal singer sight unseen.
A woman. At our synagogue, it was normally a woman. Someone so talented, so at home in the music that she did not need to practice; someone whose voice could add to the night’s melodrama and magic and then blend with the rest of us later as if she had been there all along. A cantorial student, or someone who’d been in the choir from years past.
When Jordan walked up the velvet steps later than everyone else, I could have laughed if I could have moved.
Kol Nidre is six minutes long. For the first time in my life, I skipped listening to the most haunting, melancholic prayer I knew and went to the bathroom. His voice echoed in the vents until I turned the fan on. I felt my shoulders rising. They heaved with absent sobs. I felt my lungs forget the way to breathe like a singer.
But I could not stay forever, and I knew that if I did not rejoin the choir, no alto harmonies would hold at all. Sitting in different sections, I thought I could avoid him. I thought if I sang loudly enough, I could drown out all I knew too well. Pray hard, and surely God would spare me these: the chanting anger, the notes of his sullenness, the belting tenor declaring his power over a world that always disappointed him. Singing hallelujahs, wavering control, the vibrato of every girl he tore another piece of himself out of. The melody and whisper of his need above all others, the heavy gasp that came from the held note of exhausted desires.
(“I pray the day never comes that we can breathe straight around each other.”)
But it was only his voice I could hear across the loft, only his voice, and I cried.
Jordan Blankmann is very Jewish, old Jewish, Jewish in the way that when someone needs a preschool song leader or an extra choir member or a stand-in cantorial assistant, he is the first person to be called. He is Jewish in the way that when statewide intercollegiate Shabbat services are coordinated, his name is listed in the headline of the emails. When I chance to slip his name into conversation, eyes light up. The most respected leaders overflow with his praises. And though I could go to the quieter services, visit some other synagogue knowing that he cannot be in two places at one time, it still seems too much of a risk. The rules of life have not seemed sure for years.
And so I no longer go anywhere. Every bricked wall and brass menorah holds his shadow in some childhood memory, and I am sure he could be around any corner. And then what would happen if I ran into him and he said something to me? And what would happen if I ran into him and he didn’t?
All this is not to say that I do not miss it, or that holy things do not still happen to me—but understand, they include no candles, no wine; they are on no set yearly cycle; I am sure that the moments I think of as divine would be dismissed by most. I worry sometimes that there is nothing Jewish about them at all. How far off course still counts?
When I got in my car that night, that night filled with visions of his hands and his ceiling, I could not just go home to the couch that he once lay on. Without knowing where I was headed until I arrived, I drove three hours to the shore. And though it was dark and unguarded at night, cold in the September air, I had soon found myself putting my phone in a Ziploc from my back seat and dipping under the water that first time. And then one aching day, I did it again. One weekend, again. I kept making the sojourn to the shoreline when I didn’t know what else to do, and in what seemed nothing less than a miracle, the water kept accepting me. I ruined so many dresses, not wanting to destroy the magic by doing anything differently. I will continue to in the future. I have no doubt.
In the moment where I am fully enveloped by the sea, something happens. The water’s grit and brine become harsher the deeper I go, sanding and polishing something inside of me until suddenly it turns slippery and smooth. My body adjusts to the bitter cold, the equilibrium leaving me relaxed and whole. I always, for just a second, have to fight against breathing too early, and then I trust the air will still be there at the surface. When I emerge, something is gracefully, blessedly gone.
Is it God taking these things from me? I wonder sometimes. I think the ritual itself must be responsible. If God had that power, She would have stopped it all from happening. If God had that power, I’d never have known him in the first place.
These are the things I can now speak of in only the vaguest terms: his height, the taste of his mouth, his favorite foods, his opinions on our friends, his intelligence or lack thereof, his favorite book, so many songs and phrases he loved so dearly. They are all replaced with the rushing sound of water, all gone to the ocean: my own mikveh, witnessed by none. And I do not know if I feel cleansed, but I am getting there. I will get there.
Allison Darcy lives in rural North Carolina, where she writes about disability, Judaism, and mental health, among other things. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated essays have appeared in such publications as Nat. Brut., Jewish Currents, Alma, and the Eastern Iowa Review, and her fiction earned her first place in the 2020 North Carolina Fiction Contest. She holds an MFA in Fiction from North Carolina State University and can be found at allisondarcywrites.com.