Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Benjamin, love beyond loves; my obsession, my object, object of my obsession; oh wordless lust, philosophical disorder.
Dare I call you mine, Benjamine, when I possessed your body but never your soul?
He was Ben, just Ben, wearing tight jeans on a 5’9” frame; he was Benny, with fine dark eyelashes like half moons against olive skin; he was Benjamin with a prayer shawl and yarmulke at his Bar Mitzvah; but to me and for me, he was and will always remain Benja-mine.
Ben, my pure free soul, how could I not love you, my boy, my child; you smelled of grass and the wind, not breath mints and French cologne. Your mind was unfettered, free of words and analyses and neuroses and self-conscious speculations on past “relationships” and making “commitments.”
You thought only of playing football and eating pizza. Then, at night, though you may have fantasized about venturing into a peep show on 42nd street, you slept peacefully, a tousled boy whose legs were pulled up to his chest, one arm cradling his pillow.
How did it happen, you may ask, that a woman of 35 fell in complete, uncontrollable love with a boy of 15? Does she have a history of madness or is this an isolated incident in the life of an otherwise sane woman?
I offer to you facts about me and about my background so that you may judge for yourself. Sanity, insanity, love or lust, whole wheat or rye, guilt or innocence—oh, the unending dualism of life that makes a misery of mortals.
I give you these words, which are as close to the truth as can be written, not because I need your approval, not because I desire forgiveness, but probably because, at this time, lying here alone, I need a friend. To write for you, though I don’t know you, though I will never know you, gives me an odd comfort, for I can always pretend that you care about what has happened. And isn’t pretending to oneself the basis of one’s existence?
Then, I will leave it to the mercy of the reader, that good, smug soul who eats up the confessions of others like a bowl of once crunchy, now soggy, corn flakes. Then, fat with the complacency of those who sit in judgment, you may belch out your careful and considered opinion of this, my small and squalid story set amongst the many other small and squalid stories in this, you guessed it, s & s world.
Sof, sof, as they say in Hebrew; finally, I give you these words, my life.
I was a cantor and had joined myself to the Reform movement, a liberal stream of Judaism. Though my soul rigorously opposed a philosophy in which one worshipped God whenever it was convenient and in the least strenuous way, it was only through the Reform movement that I could serve God as a female cantor.
Sometimes we wake to find our heads resting on strange pillows, not because we wished to crawl into that particular bed, but because no other would have us and we were tired of sleeping alone.
So I used Reform Judaism as a vessel to enable me to cry out to God and fill the air with shouts of joy, as angels sang His praises, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of host!”
Prayer shawl draped around me, under the wings of God I swayed, and the energy of my voice, the vessel of God, can be compared, if you will, to the unleashed energy of an orgasm. At that moment, on that note, is the pure and essential power of God. Energy, not blocked, but fully charged, electrical, flowing on, shooting forth, not in time or space, but bursting from itself: that was I, offering up to God not sacrifices but prayers. Not the carcasses of animals but words. With words did God create the world. With words I returned His gift and gave Him praises.
Shortly after graduation, I accepted a part-time position with a synagogue on the upper east side of Manhattan. It allowed me enough flexibility to work on various Bible-related articles for publication in Jewish journals. At that point, I well remember, I had begun a scholarly piece on temple prostitutes, a neglected aspect of Jewish history. My notepads were scribbled with various topics and subtopics, historical facts and philosophical points. Each night at my typewriter I pieced it all together, weaving in anecdote here, epistemology there.
I opened my legs to the mulchy words of the text; the nuances shaded me, shaped me, took me off, not to the future but to the past, and their age-sharpened muskiness, so porous and smelling of camel dung and desert, contrasted drastically with the black and white, all angles and steel and chrome minimalism of the language I knew.
It was during the writing of this article, which would subsequently be published in Yiddishkeit and You under the title “A shekel a shot,” that I met Benjamin Yehudi of the dusty, resentful eyes. Like a kindergarten teacher who had a secret crush on one of her children, I flew on wings of angels to see this boy, a lovely boy who sat, ankles crossed and torso slouched, he was Benjamine, beautiful, bellissimo of mine. Benjamine, with thick dark brown hair softly spiked on top; Benny, face unmarked by years of contemplating life and its attendant ambiguities and contradictions; Ben, hands gesturing awkwardly, stumbling over unfamiliar Hebrew words; Ben with a smile and a scowl. Always and forever, mine.
What I wanted, what I coveted more than anything else in the world, was to eliminate the separation between us; to join that dribbling dart of love to my ever-welcoming womb; womb-welcoming is a large part of making love.
I wanted to stroke his smooth young chest, kiss his ribs, suck that unruly member, feel him on top of me, faster and faster, yes, now Benjamine! And then, again and again, he can’t get enough of me. I can’t get enough of him not getting enough of me. We are deliriously dazzled by each other’s bodies, by our sweat, our saliva, our noises, our limbs bumping, fitting, holding each other, going up and down the scale, Ben—ee—ah! I hear you. I am with you.
I was near despair. How could I get closer to Ben? I pulled my hair, rent my garments, gnashed my teeth. And then, appearing like a gift from God the answer to my prayers was delivered unto me. Yea, verily, I had cried unto the Lord, a great cry of distress, and He did answer me, I will sing a new song unto the Lord for He has done marvelous things.
Indeed, though I am naught but a weak, lowly worm, God heard my voice crying out to Him and He answered my prayers. He delivered unto me a sacrificial ram, in the form of Benjamin’s father.
David Yehudi came to see me one afternoon when he picked Benjamin up. Wanted to thank me for all the time and attention I had shown his son.
“I enjoyed it,” said I, politely inspecting the middle-aged face, middle-aged body of a middle-aged man.
“No, really, I know that Benny is sometimes, well, you know, teenagers don’t like to study, and anyway, I just wanted you to know that, you know, it’s important.”
The moment hung in balance. Would I see the door of opportunity opening to me or would I ignore the moment? I was in the valley of decision.
It was my turn. I smiled at Benjamin’s father, a charming, open, what-are-you-doing-for-dinner kind of smile. I lightly touched his arm. He smiled. Squeezed my hand.
“Would you, uh, like to go out for dinner or—something—maybe?”
“Love to,” I smiled again and Ben’s fate was sealed in my smile.
Two years had gone by since I had entered the enchanted land of frustrated longing. In the two years, I had taken up residence with David and Ben; Ben had grown taller and, it seemed, slimmer. He was seen about the house wearing high top sneakers, athletic socks and shorts. No shirt. Was he a tease? You know he was!
His favorite word for a while was “bummer.” No food in the fridge? “Bummer.” A homeless person dies of the cold. “Bummer.” He wrenches his ankle during basketball practice. “Bummer.”
My catch word, which hummed like a mantra in my mind, was “come ’ere.”
There were more scenes. Pathetic scenes of a woman obsessed, hungry, like a dog in heat, needy and desperate.
Stacy the Sidler leans her head gently, quickly, against Benjamine’s shoulder blades. Stacy the Stealthy Seducer stumbles into the bathroom accidentally when Ben is taking a shower.
Stacy the Matriarch notices a razor burn on his lovely menschette neck. Her maternal, probing hands smooth softly over the crimson patch and she says, “Benny has an ouchie!” and she places her lips against his neck. “Bummer,” says my Benjamin.
Sister Stacy says, “Benny, can you help me unzip this dress?” then pulls it over her head in front of him, casually, no big deal, standing in front of him in bikini underwear and plunging black brassiere.
Ben’s actions towards me became progressively warmer, and I had to wonder if he was so unaware that I was wooing him into a false sense of security. I suspected that the idea of sleeping with me had popped into his curious, adolescent mind, on the average of once every 20 seconds (read that once in a magazine).
And so, Ben allowed himself to straighten my collar, he helped me on with my coat, his hand sometimes lingered too long on my waist—what’s a waist between a stepmom and her son—he kissed me many times on the lips, and his eyes, always his eyes were on me, questioning, solemn, restless eyes.
Yet Ben, for all of his flirting, had no idea that I would allow things to progress as far as they did.
Ben believed, as do all believe, what he wanted to believe—that I was a good, serious woman who made responsible decisions. He believed in me.
Oh, God, what I did to that poor boy! And all on account of the song that was in my heart. I should have stopped at Ecclesiastes.
I went home and found Ben on the couch. I took his temperature, felt his forehead, and sat with him for a while and told him jokes. He fell asleep on the couch.
I was humming and stirring the soup in the kitchen when Ben called me. “Stace, could I have some aspirin, please?”
“Sure.” Kind to the weak and afflicted. I brought him a glass of water and two aspirin and sat next to him on the couch. His body was twisted toward me and he leaned into me, hugging me a little, as he had done with more frequency of late. That was when I felt it. Ecstatic hardness.
Again, the moment of opportunity. We were on the couch. He had an erection and I was in a constant state of lubrication.
Gently, first. Place my mouth against his. A little tongue. He pulls away. I am insistent. My hands move down his arms, down his chest, oh, God, how can I move so slowly when I want to ravish this boy!
Fortunately, the calculating Stacy has the presence of mind not to rip his clothes off and straddle him. He is a just-opening blossom.
And so, she makes him comfy, smiles, always smiles, the reassuring, this-is-kosher smile and slowly, the clothing is discarded and they are lying on the couch, and Stacy Tracey can no longer deprive herself of joining herself with her sweet pea’s sweet schwanz.
And I tell you, it was very good.
I don’t know about you, but if somebody told me that a 35-year-old woman had seduced a 15-year-old virgin boy, I would want to know a little more than that “It was very good.” How good is good? Is it passable or are we talking orgasmic?
Of course, I’m the kind of person who always asks questions. I like particulars. Details. Was he breathing hard, was his heart racing, did he still have a runny nose, did he suck her breasts, did he touch her clitoris, did he know she had a clitoris? I mean, you can’t just say “and it was very good.” Only God can get away with that.
Life is more than very good, and often less than terrible, but there is a huge area in between in which we dance and we sing as we swing on the fingers of God.
His heart beat like a wild, wild bird, and his body was smooth, like a baby.
I sucked him a little. He was so sensitive and I was afraid he would spill his seed in my mouth before I’d had a chance to take him into my burning bush and so I moved on top of him.
He said, “Stace?” and I said, “It’s okay, honey.”
His eyes were shut and was he hearing the ocean pounding? Was the same wave tumbling against him and did he see the same thick stars that I was seeing? Were we experiencing a similar prophetic rapture as he slid into me, bravely plunging into unknown territory? And the unknown captured him inside me. Then he knew himself to be fully known.
For the next three days, David went to work later than usual, forcing Ben to go to school without even a goodbye kiss. I saw his questioning eyes, and the next day at breakfast, I said, “Ben, you look like you still aren’t well. Don’t you think you should stay at home one more day?”
“Should he go to the doctor?” David asked.
“No. I think lying in bed all day would do him wonders.”
Ben turned bright red.
“You do look flushed, Benjamin. Let me feel your forehead.” When David’s big hand came toward Ben’s face, Ben turned aside, avoiding his father’s glance.
We spent the morning in bed, (Ben’s bed, a single mattress with blue and white sheets and a blue and white comforter), and I taught Ben with patience and humor. “Honey,” I said, “you can open your eyes and look at my breasts. I won’t turn into a pillar of salt, I promise.”
When David came home that evening, Ben stayed in his room. The next morning, Ben asked if he could have sausage and eggs for breakfast. “Sausage isn’t kosher, Ben, you know that.”
“I forgot. This is a kosher house, right?”
David said, “You know, I never thought I would like having a kosher home, but I like the order and discipline it imposes on one’s life. I like having to think twice before I put something in my mouth. It’s an important lesson to learn that you can’t have something just because you want it.”
“I agree,” I said.
Ben was silent.
You may ask, did I really believe I could maintain my marriage to David and my affair with Benjamin simultaneously? Well, to tell the truth, I did not allow myself to believe anything or hope for anything. I learned long ago that there is a time to get and a time to lose; there is a time to hold on to control and a time to let go. This was the time to let go.
However, it is true that life is in a constant state of flux, there is no fixity, only transience, nothing lasts forever, and so on. This was no exception.
I managed to hold on to both Benny and David for a mere 40 days—40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert, 40 days was Moses on Mount Sinai, 40 days was Jesus in the Mt. of Temptation, 40 days until the heavy foot of fate stepped in again, this time crushing and destroying all in sight.
Again, the place: The apartment.
The date: November 26th, 1985.
The scene: Ben and his father were in the midst of one of their ongoing fights. Benny said, “Dad, I’m not doing drugs but if I did, it wouldn’t be any of your business. You don’t own me! I own myself! Stop preaching to me about peer pressure. What about your peer pressure? Why don’t you wear jeans to work, Dad? The magazines tell you not to, right? You go along with the game but I’m not allowed to, you hypocrite!”
“What game are you referring to?” David asked with deliberate intelligence and calm.
“The game!” Ben shouted, his voice going through several registers. “You’re a good Jew, a good American, a good guy who got caught in a lousy marriage, stuck with a kid, what a bummer, so you went to a shrink—”
I had only told him that so that he would understand his father. Their fights were getting on my nerves.
Ben got louder, “—to straighten out your head, figured out you weren’t living your own life, but living according to somebody else’s values then decided, ‘Fuck the values.’”
“Benjamin,” his father said, but not with any real authority.
“Ben,” I pleaded.
“Yeah! That’s right. You heard me. I said, ‘Fuck the values!’ Because you decided to start you life all over, you got a divorce and you had affairs. Well, dad,” Ben’s voice broke and his words quietly filled the silence, “well, fuck your values.”
My poor, searching noodnick. My little boobalah.
Ben’s voice rose again. “You took me through all of it. And then you bring Stacy home so you can have a nice kosher Jewish house.”
“Benny,” I whispered.
I couldn’t stop his words, they dripped from his mouth, the mouth that had dripped from me just this afternoon, oh, Benny, what’s been going on with you?
“Yeah, that’s right. She’s gonna keep us kosher. Bring us back to God. God help us! You know what Stacy, your little piece of trafe, has been doing, Daddy?”
“Shut up, Ben!”
“She has been—”
“Shut-up!” I cried.
“—fucking me. That’s right. Fucking me. Your own son.” He was so quiet, so calm. “Your little Jewish value. What do you think of that?”
After all the words have been spoken and the arrows of hurt have lodged firmly in the heart, after the actors have interacted and the fine smoke of their fine fury has left a film like crushed orchids to perfume the air, after all of that, then what?
I am the storyteller in this woeful tale, and I suppose it is up to me, since I hear no volunteers, to supply the reader with the information he so desperately craves.
It is so gratifying to be a witness to the demise of a fellow human being.
Then what happened? Did David knock Stacy senseless? Did Stacy knock Benjamin senseless? Did they all knock each other senseless until they lay on the floor like a heap of fuming orchids?
Did they have the sense to be knocked senseless?
Did David say, “Stacy, I had absolute faith in you, like I never had with my mother. I can’t—tell me he’s lying, darling, or all of my therapy has been a lie!” and break into tears?
Did Stacy cry, “David, it’s not true, don’t you see? He’s angry with his mother and this is his wish fulfillment fantasy, to make love to me as a surrogate and thereby usurp his father’s place. He’s jealous of you because he knows I love you and you love me! It’s Oedipal.”
Did Benjamin run to his room, and as the stereo played the Rolling Stones, slash his wrists?
Did the family dog (enter new character, stage left) decide that this was the very moment he would pass gas, thus disguising the odor of the steaming orchid petals?
Did the high priest give Stacy a bitter herb to swallow and did her belly swell and he proclaim her an adulteress?
Did God decide that now was the time for the Messiah to visit the world and, as the living room filled with quaking, palpable, jelly-like tension, the Messiah snuck into the back door, like a thief in the night, in order to set this family’s lives straight and proclaim peace on earth and kick the dog?
The dog did not fart, the Messiah did not come. He knows which places to avoid.
Benny did not slash his wrists, the high priest who did not administer a bitter herb, may have farted. Don’t know.
Stacy did not deny Benny’s accusation. David did cry.
No one knocked anyone senseless, but they did lie there in a metaphorical heap like shattered petals; they remain there today and will remain forever, a mixed-up, entangled, dismembered threesome.
Having said that, I will tell you what did happen after the curtain fell and the characters shot their arrows.
The words, like dark demons, hovered. Ben ran off to his room, scared.
I, Stacy, remained in the living room, absorbing the sound of tumultuous silence.
Cuckolded David fought against the demonic quiet.
And then he saw the truth of me in my eyes and a constipated choke came forth from his throat, like the cry of Christ when he was betrayed by Judas, an angry wail, a muted plea.
And he said to me, “I want you—to go.”
And I hummed in my mind the words of a song I have loved, “To every thing, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time to every purpose under the sun. A time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap.”
Depressed Dave said, “I’m going for a drive. When I come back, I don’t want you here.”
“A time to cast away—”
Then the incestuous, licentious adulteress turned, turned, turned for she was to harvest what she had sown. I went to our room and for long moments, in the quiet of the apartment, I thought of what I had done. But I could not, I tell you, bring myself to regret any of it. Not then. I tried, truly tried, to make myself feel ashamed and guilty, but above the dancing demons I heard the sound of angels, my angels, and they sang to me, “I will taste his tender vine.”
I had packed my suitcases. Didn’t really think I would be walking away from Benjamin, song of my life, in three minutes, never to see him again.
The telephone rang. “Mrs. Yehudi? This is John Sieger with the New York State police department. Your husband—he was in a car accident. A bum was drunk and walked into the street. Your husband swerved and I’m afraid—he was killed instantly.”
Poor David. A mensch to the very end. He gave his life for bums. Truly, a bummer.
Then the rest. Identifying the body. Telling Benjamin. Funeral arrangements. (David, David I truly never wished this upon you! But we cannot avoid our fate, darling.)
“A time to dance, a time to mourn.”
“Benjamin, your father—he loved you,” I said.
“A time to gather together.”
He sobbed in my arms.
“A time for joy, a time for pain.”
The rabbi delivered a kind eulogy for David, whose time on this earth was over, who was a good, honest man, an example for the rest of us, who had done his Godly duty on earth, and his memory would remain in our hearts.
We Jews. Always living on examples and memories.
And I, the lovely widow, head bowed, cried.
Yes, there were tears in my dusky, green eyes. For David, certainly. But most of all, tears for Benjamin, whose heart was breaking as he stood over the coffin, trying so very hard to be a man.
His broken heart broke mine.
In the weeks after, I told him it wasn’t his fault. Wasn’t my fault. Wasn’t anybody’s fault. Wasn’t the bum’s fault. Wasn’t David’s fault. Fate.
Ben didn’t trust me. I sensed he wanted my comfort. He wanted to share my bed. Like a puppy kicked down the stairs, he wanted affection and kindness to hold on to. I stroked his cheeks, and I went up behind him and put my arms around his waist. He did not push me away, and in fact I knew he was quivering with desire. But he could not return my affection, either. (Oh, how I loved his stubborn chin and brooding eyes!)
“Benjamin,” a month had passed, and he seemed to be waiting for me to decide how we would continue, if I would move out or send him back to his mother, who had expressed no interest in mothering a 15-year-old boy, “would you like to go to Israel for a while?”
“I got school.”
“I’ll tell them you’ll go to school in Israel.”
“Anytime. Tomorrow. Next week. Soon.”
“You want to go?” he asked.
I nodded. “I think it would be good for us to—get away from New York.”
“You want to go to the Wall and repent?”
I acknowledged his sarcasm with a shrug and “Why not?” I said, “Travelling puts life into perspective. The world does not consist only of New York. It’s good to see yourself as a visitor in the world, so that you don’t get too attached to one certain piece of ground.”
What I really thought was, if we are alone together, somewhere else, not haunted by those terrible Jewish memories, I can re-establish our relationship. For a Benjamin free of suffering and guilt could be a very sweet Ben-bon, indeed!
Oh, Benjamine, be mine!
He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
In those three words, “a time to mend.”
Angela Himsel received her MFA in creative writing from the City College of New York. Her short stories have appeared in various magazines.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.