It hurt to walk. The pain behind her eyes hurt more. She fought off tears. She wouldn’t go back and had nowhere forward to go.
She crossed the border of her neighborhood—her former neighborhood. Only five blocks long and five wide, she’d never before left it unaccompanied by an adult. Well-kept buildings gave way to tumbledown ones. Loud-talking black-skinned men and women in all manner of dress replaced silent bearded white men wearing long black coats and wide-rimmed black hats. Clean, even sidewalks yielded to cracked, slanted ones, stained with squashed chewing gum resembling grimy nickels and quarters.
Her heart pounded. Breathing became difficult. Mommy and Daddy had told her never to go into this neighborhood, much less alone and never, ever alone at night. She’d be robbed, stabbed, or worse. No one told her what worse was, but Mordechai Kaplan had shown her.
She realized she had somewhere to go—away. Away from all she’d known, away from their lies. Enough with being good. I’ll be bad, as bad as can be. Bad like Holden Caulfield, like Emma Goldman. Maybe I’ll even be a crack-whore. She didn’t know what that was, but her father spat out the term when talking about schvartzes and their sinful ways. She’d fill in the details as she went. She’d write her parents and Rav Moscovitz and tell them all about it, then they’d be sorry.
There had to be a middle ground between being a crack-whore and a rebbetzin. She couldn’t be a rebbetzin and wouldn’t be a crack-whore, if only because she didn’t know what it was. But she wasn’t the middle-ground type. Not with the intensity she’d applied to being first in her school and so good she was almost perfect—except for getting raped and refusing to lie about it.
The sensible option: go into foster care, get a secular American education, and pursue a regular career. But according to her father, girls in foster care were violated and boys were beaten up just for the fun of it. Social services people were outsiders, meddlers, not to be trusted—like the government, that schvartze Mayor Dinkins, and President Bush, who’d told everyone to read his lips then raised taxes. She didn’t want to be sensible, not with life having become so senseless—and anyway they’d probably send her back to her parents.
She had no idea how many blocks, or in which direction or directions, she’d walked. The past minutes, or hours, were a blank. Her fear had disappeared, but it was frightening that she wasn’t frightened. Her anger had disappeared as well. Replaced by…nothing. Now that she thought about it, she realized she hurt all over. The bump on her head throbbed from hitting the butcher’s floor. Her stomach cramped and swirled. The place between her legs felt sticky and oozy, even though she’d washed over and over. With every step she felt that awful soreness down there. But she didn’t care about the pain.
Knots of people, sitting on stoops or leaning against rusty, bashed-in cars, stopped talking and stared when she walked by. They could see by her long coat, buttoned at her neck, that she didn’t belong there. Of course she didn’t, she didn’t belong anywhere.
“Hey, you see her?” a boy about her age said to another boy to who was bouncing a ball against a brick wall and catching it. “She’s fucked-up, man. Looks like a zombie or something.”
She felt like…she wasn’t really there.
The windows had heavy bars across them. Sliding metal grates covered the entrances to shuttered stores, which might’ve been out of business judging by the many layers of graffiti on walls and doors. An older man pulled down a graffiti-free gate in front of his store and locked it. No sooner had he reached the corner than a pair of kids with spray paint cans ran toward the gate.
I have been a stranger in a strange land. Stranger was the wrong word, the correct translation was sojourner. She hadn’t know it, but that was what she’d been for fifteen years. What would Rav Moscovitz say if he heard her comparing herself to Moses?
Never again would she be dependent on other people. Never again would she fall for the lie of love. If her parents, Rav Moscovitz, and even God would abandon her, she’d have to be an idiot to think strangers wouldn’t do the same when it suited them. According to Emma Goldman, People have only as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take. Maybe she’d learn courage.
Awful music, the kind her father called be-bop blared from a passing car. She could barely imagine how loud it must have sounded from inside.
She needed food, a place to sleep, a bathroom.
A shoeless, rag-clad homeless man approached her, hand out. She gave him two dollars, all the money she had. The obligation of tzedakah, charity, was a fundamental part of Jewish life that she wouldn’t give up. Then it hit her: she too was now homeless. How long before she smelled like this man, like she’d gone to the bathroom on herself and hadn’t washed in a year? She had to get a job, but no one was allowed to hire her at her age.
Terror rolled over her, scrunching her stomach, short-circuiting her brain, liquefying her legs. She leaned against a building and slowly slid down.
“Girl, you okay?”
A big fat woman ever so gently helped Hannah to her feet. She hated herself for her weakness. No. She couldn’t afford to hate herself. She was all she had, all she’d ever have.
“I’m fine. Thank you. I’m…” She forced a smile. “Excuse me, I need to get home.”
Standing straight, shoulders back, head high—like her mother had told her to when she’d nag her about her posture—she walked away. As suddenly as it had come, her fear receded.
She returned people’s stares. She was done with averting her eyes.
The idea of being a crack-whore had been silly, but what about being a regular whore? Whore was the worst insult the men in her community, her former community, could throw at a woman. That made it sound good. To the moralist, prostitution does not consist so much in the fact that the woman sells her body, but rather that she sells it out of wedlock, Emma Goldman said. And with her marriage prospects kaput…
A black man in a puffy jacket leaned against a building, his baggy jeans worn so low she could see his underwear. Thick gold chains hung from his neck. His gold-ringed fingers held a skinny misshapen cigarette. The smoke smelled bitter yet sweet.
Whores had pimps. Sunny, the whore who came to Holden Caulfield’s hotel room, had Maurice, a nasty man who punched Holden in the stomach. She’d want a nice pimp, not someone who punched her customers. That would be bad for business. Maybe the man with the saggy jeans would be her pimp. She was having crazy thoughts. Did that mean she’d gone crazy?
“You lost?” He bent down so his face was level with hers. “You shouldn’t be wandering alone ’round here at night. Be happy to walk you back to your neighborhood if you like.”
Would you like to be my pimp? seemed an inappropriate response.
“Thank you, but I only have a short way to go.”
Even the thought of having sex made her want to retch. Being a whore wasn’t such a great idea.
The air stank of burning rubber. She stopped under a dark street lamp, its broken remnants crunching beneath her feet. The street looked intimidating and dark. Everything seemed to swirl, making her dizzy. Rivka used to spin until she could no longer stand. She’d never see her again. Pain built behind her eyes. She wanted to cry. She didn’t, though.
Three young men leaning against a tenement checked her out, then exchanged looks and nodded. One took a position on her right, another on her left, both close to her. The third stood in front of her, arms crossed. All had tough-guy scowls. As recently as this morning she’d have turned, screamed, and fled. Not anymore. She’d left her fear on the butcher’s tile floor.
She looked directly into the bloodshot yellow-rimmed eyes of the man in front of her and said in quiet but firm voice, “Please get out of my way.”
He stepped aside.
“Thank you,” she said. “Have a lovely evening.”
She kept walking. She must’ve gone in a circle, as she started passing buildings she’d seen before, only now the streets were deserted. She’d never been so tired. She wanted to curl up under the covers on her nice warm bed. She could barely take another step. She’d never make it home even if she tried, wouldn’t be able to find the way.
At a garbage-strewn empty lot, she crawled through a hole in the chain-link fence. Jagged bricks, cans, and broken bottles scratched and cut her hands. Squeezing behind a rusted car and a discarded washing machine, she squirmed under part of an old mattress and rested her head on a bald tire. A cloud of black flies swarmed from a rat’s corpse. The stench made her gag. She lugged the tire and mattress behind a mound of garbage, stinky but not as awful as the rat. Laying down again she made sure not to breathe through her nose. There had to be a reason the butcher chose her, why her parents were so willing to sit shiva for her, why god had let it happen. Had she been too proud of her heart-shaped face, bow lips, green eyes, and red hair? Had she not averted her eyes sufficiently? Had her scarf not covered all her hair, her coat not been baggy enough?
Closing her eyes, she hugged the tire. Just two nights ago, Rivka had crawled into bed with her after a nightmare. Hannah had wrapped herself around her little sister and told her she’d never let anyone hurt her, not ever. I love you, Hannah. More than Mommy. More than anyone. Rivka will miss her. Did Rivka do something wrong to deserve never to see her big sister again? Why did Hannah’s sin have to affect her?
She saw only shades of gray—light gray clouds and snow, dark gray filth. From the position of the dull gray circle in the sky, it seemed to be around noon. Like a dog abandoned by its owner, she went to the bathroom behind a rusty refrigerator—almost as disgusting as lying down next to the dead rat. Achy, hungry. and filthy, she crawled back through the fence to the street, scratching her hands and knees even more. She resumed her walk toward nowhere.
Snow swirled but other than in isolated patches didn’t stick. The pure white of the snow couldn’t find a home in this filthy gray world. Would there ever be colors again? She continued walking…and walking.
February dusk already setting in, she came to a housing project. A young black man strode back and forth. He wore even more gold chains and rings than her non-pimp, and it looked as if his jeans were about to fall off with each loose-limbed stride.
Exhausted, she ducked behind a car mounted on cinderblocks instead of tires. A cold wind howled. Mini-cyclones spiraled old leaves and pieces of trash into menacing funnels. Pigeons flew backwards. Her teeth chattered. She couldn’t bear to spend another night outside.
A white guy, seventeen years old or so, walked up to Gold Chains. He had long hair and a luxurious fur-collared shearling coat. He and Gold Chains touched fists and went through a complicated routine. Warm Coat handed something to the young black man, who went inside one of the buildings. Hugging himself as if cold—not that anyone could be cold in that big beautiful coat—Warm Coat paced in a small circle. He lit a cigarette, took a few drags, crushed it out with his foot, then repeated the process several times. Gold Chains returned and handed something to Warm Coat, who hurried off.
Hannah followed, but she wasn’t Hannah anymore. She had no idea who she was.
Warm Coat went down the steps to the subway. Not having a token, she ducked under the turnstile. As recently as yesterday afternoon, she’d never have considered doing anything like that. It was kind of fun being bad. She wanted to be worse, a lot worse. She hadn’t deserved what happened to her. Whatever happens to her from now on she’d deserve. She got onto the train and sat next to him—another thing she’d never have considered doing. She and Warm Coat were the only white people in the car.
She had to find a warm place to sleep, shower, wash her clothes, and eat. In short, she needed money and needed it now. She knew she wasn’t thinking straight and that the only idea to occur to her had been as crazy as it was stomach-turning.
“Give me…seventy-two dollars and you can have sexual intercourse with me.”
Seventy-two might be too high, but she could always negotiate down. Four times chai seemed a good starting point. According to a traditional Jewish system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, the letters of chai, the Hebrew word for life, added up to eighteen; thus, eighteen was a spiritual number.
“That’s not funny.” He looked her up and down. “The way you’re dressed…are you a Mormon or Mennonite? Or is this like performance art…for school or something?”
Not funny at all.
“I’m pretty, almost a virgin. It’s a very good deal for you. In fact I’m thinking of raising my prices. You just got in under the wire.”
He tilted his head, his face a picture of incredulity. She tried another approach.
“Either pay me or I’ll tell everyone in the subway car that you have drugs in your pocket.”
“Get away from me.” He slid to the end of the bench.
She followed. “THIS BOY HAS DRUGS IN HIS POCKET. I JUST SAW HIM BUY THEM.”
None of the other passengers even glanced in their direction.
He put her hand over her mouth. She bit down.
“Ouch!” He looked at his palm as if it were a foreign object.
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I…”
“It’s…okay. I…was just startled.”
“Really, I… I’ve had all the tsuris—trouble—I can take.” Thinking about the Jobian torrent of tsuris she’d suffered through made her voice crack.
“Why, what happened?” He sounded concerned.
Maybe talking would make her start to feel as if it had happened to someone else. She told him, haltingly at first but then almost as if she were telling Rivka a story. Only now she concentrated on choosing the right English words and speaking without too much of a Yiddisher accent. He leaned forward, eyes wide. She didn’t tell him what the butcher had done, just that he’d pulled her into his shop and locked the door. She sped on, before he had the chance to ask a question. When she said shiva, her throat constricted so much she couldn’t continue. She shook her head.
“It’s okay.” He sounded like he felt some…empathy—was that the right word? His eyes looked sad.
The subway rumbled on. Neither of them spoke, but he kept staring as if he wanted to say something or wanted her to. She couldn’t. She’d used up every English word she knew.
She took off her head scarf, fluffed out her long just-a-little-curly red hair, and smiled like a movie star.
“I was supposed to shave my head and wear a wig after I was married.” I was raped and found out my parents don’t love me, but hey, I won’t have to shave my head. “Imagine how good I’ll look when the drugs turn you into a mad sex-fiend.”
He laughed. Although she didn’t know what was funny, she thought she was making progress.
“You’re very orthodox?” he asked, words bursting from his mouth like air from a balloon.
“Haredi until yesterday.”
“Like the crazies in Israel, who stone women and girls for wearing sleeveless shirts or sitting next to men on busses?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.” She’d heard about that, but hadn’t really believed it, thought the stones had been metaphorical or something. Now, though…
The subway stopped. Some people got on, some off. She and Warm Coat were still the only white passengers.
Her hands felt damp. She started shaking. Panic, spurred on by…nothing. I can’t let myself cry.
“Please talk to me,” she said.
“When you…offered to have sex with me for money, you were joking, right?”
“No. I don’t know what I’d have done if you’d said yes, but… It’s going to be a long time before I feel like being funny.”
He made a sad, empathetic sound.
“You do understand that you’re too young to be a whore? Anyone having sex with you could be arrested, and you’d go straight to juvie jail.”
The train started again. She watched an empty bottle roll across the floor. She needed money, a place to live, food. What was she going to do? She began breathing hard. Tried to control it.
After what might have been a long silence, he said, “My name’s Trevor.” Getting no reaction, he asked, “What’s yours?”
She thought for a minute. It should’ve been an easy question.
“Call me girl, small g.” She’d learned from Rav Moscovitz that she was no one special, which was now fine with her.
“Are you going to change it to woman, small w, when you get older?” He smiled.
“I don’t plan to live that long.”
Would Hannah’s parents hear about it if she died? What would they say? Smart of us sitting shiva for her when we did. Now we can relax and enjoy ourselves. Not that they were big on joy, but they could pray without interruption while feeling superior to schvartzes, goys, less observant Jews, whores, and David Dinkins. Was she not being fair? Let someone else be fair for a change.
The subway crossed under the East River toward Manhattan. A boy and girl, sitting across from her kissed and groped each other. Girl studied them. It didn’t look all that hard.
Realizing she hadn’t spoken for a while, she asked, “Why do you go to a bad neighborhood in Brooklyn to buy drugs?”
“The guys at school won’t sell to me. I posted a sign in the commons bitching about how their stuff has been stepped on so often it’s mostly benzocaine and baby aspirin. We had to go to the dean and pretend I’d been goofing on them.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “My shrink says I’m just acting out. Like you, I guess.”
A pigeon wandered between the seats. It looked as lost and out of place as girl felt.
“I’m not acting. I’m transforming.” Girl liked how that sounded. “I’m done with bowing to authority. Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government.”
“Is that a quote from something?”
“Emma Goldman, a distant relative. Maybe I inherited some of her anarchist genes.”
“I’ve heard of her, big on free love, right?” he said. “I’ve read that whores don’t like sex, don’t even like men. They have sex with so many people they don’t emotionally attach to anyone. It’s all…faked.”
“I like the not-emotionally-attaching-to-anyone part.”
Like was the wrong word. She felt too indifferent to like or not like, but she couldn’t have explained that to him…or herself—the self from whom she was becoming increasingly disconnected, as if she were watching it grow smaller from the rear window of a speeding car. Who or what was driving? Would it blow up when it crashed? She hoped so.
“Now you do, but tomorrow? Next week? From what you told me, you were completely different yesterday morning, and you’re reacting to a pretty damn traumatic…trauma.”
She stared straight ahead at the couple pawing each other. Whatever happened she’d no longer be Hannah, the nice girl who’d been raped and unloved.
“Where do you go to school?” she asked, two subway stops later.
“The Hill School. A fancy private school up on a hill in Riverdale, in the Bronx.” His face compressed as if he were mulling over an idea. “My parents are out of town. I’m having people over. Come. Someone’s going to be there who might help you.”
“I don’t want help.” She didn’t want anything, except to die, and she didn’t care enough to do something about that, not yet anyway.
“Everett Talcott, he’s the best teacher in my school.”
“He’s going to a drug party?” Would she ever be anything but a sojourner in a strange land?
“He has befriended female students too well and too often.”
“Does that mean he…?” girl rolled her hands.
“He could be fired if he’s caught doing it again. Sex with underaged girls is…Other than that, though, he’s a great guy.”
Sounds more like a reason why he shouldn’t be going to a drug party. Or do I just not understand anything about the world beyond Crown Heights? Apparently I didn’t even understand all that much about Crown Heights.
They got off the train at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. Although it was now dark out, the street hummed with activity. Three lanes of cars raced down the avenue, jockeying for position, running lights. People crossed the street, oblivious to the cars that swerved around them. She and Trevor walked quickly, but faster walkers passed them. She wondered if all those pedestrians and drivers had places they needed to get to or if the point was just to go fast.
She wished she had somewhere she wanted to go.