Please God help me not to miss her again

I was browsing psychotherapy memes on Instagram a few years ago when Hannah popped up in my friend requests. We each had new last names and new looks. I had decided that since I had to wear wigs anyway (as an ultra-Orthodox Jew) they might as well be blonde instead of my natural dull brown. She wore a mix of wigs and other creative headgear.

We “hearted” each other’s messages, not daring to break our silence with actual words.

“She looks happy, I thought to myself, my fingers hovering over her photos. “Don’t start anything.”

Still, I found myself imagining her as the girl I once knew with suspenders and a messy bun, no makeup or laugh lines, who hung her backpack next to me on the first day of tenth grade at Borough Park, Brooklyn. While our classmates drew equations in pencil on grid paper, she drew on her arm in neon gel pen: “Hannah.” I rolled up my identical navy plaid sleeve and put a ballpoint pen to my own pale skin: “Malka.”

She smiles. I wanted to know everything about her.

She came from another city, where there were no Orthodox Jewish high schools. “I don’t understand this place,” she said.

“I’ll tell you everything you need to know,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow and laughed.

At night, in the void of my house, I worried about her. My family had broken up, with my mother living behind her closed bedroom door and my father practically sleeping in his warehouse. Hannah, however, was staying with a local Jewish family for the school year. She had no family in town at all. It just seemed natural to invite her over for some of my mom’s home-cooked dinner. It seemed obvious that she had to stay the night. On our sleepovers, despite the alarms flashing in my mind, my body felt right at home pressed against his.

We moved around each other’s shape, wary under the fluorescent lights of our classroom. Yet the other girls took notice, whispering things about us like we could be sisters, trying to name something neither of us knew how to say. We were preparing to graduate in the new millennium, meet yeshiva boys, and then achieve our true purpose of getting married and having children.

When the silence in my house began to be stifling, I moved to Toronto and lived with cousins ​​for the last two years of high school. I was relieved to be away from temptation.

I followed the precedent of our sages and fasted on weekdays until I could feel my hips pushing through my uniform skirts. Even that reminded me of Hannah, however, the long skirts we shared and how they fit our slim bodies in almost exactly the same way. “Help me not to miss her again,” I asked God until the pain in my soul took over and my better judgment faded. “Please forgive me,” I prayed as I dialed her number, my Nokia cell phone to her boarding school family’s landline.

After months apart, we met again in Brooklyn for a concert. We watched Kineret, the superstar of our community, her long shimmering dress leap out as she filled the room with song. I squeezed my shoulder blades. Tight. Tighter. Hannah was so close I could feel her body move in the air between us. But I could also hear the low hum as dozens of pious voices joined Kineret’s, singing of the world to come. Not exactly the appropriate soundtrack to act on my ungodly desires. When the music ended, we saw the crowd disperse through the streets, a stream of girls and women in modest attire.

” You want to sleep ? I asked, trying to take the urgency out of my words, trying not to hold my breath.

“Sure! Can we have a pizza?” In the dim light of the streetlights, I saw her smile.

We created our own concert later that night, a silent orchestra of skin to skin, his breath in my ear and our hearts beating against each other in the dark. We held each other afterwards. I felt his face against mine, his fingers trailing down my back.

I wanted to say, “I think of you every day.”

Her breathing slowed, but I could feel her, still awake, playing quiet notes with me throughout the night. As the sunlight streamed through my blinds, I tried not to notice the tilt of her pale shoulder, the way her black hair splayed across my pillow.

“This is the last time,” I promised myself – and God – as I slipped my leg between his.

In the morning we separated, she returned to the boarding family and I returned on a plane to my school in Toronto. I doubled down on my quest to heaven, writing words to God in the margins of my prayer books.

I kept hearing through the vine that Hannah was hurtling down the road to hell. Every time I came back to New York and saw her, I felt like there was a chasm between us, which widened. When our eyes met, I looked away, at the new silver hoop in his nose, his striped flared pants. I knew I must have looked like a religious fanatic to her, in my black tent-like skirts and tight ponytail. I was afraid it was my fault, that my sins had led her away from the sacred path.

We moved on, each of us marrying men in black hats, me at 19 and her a few years later. I haven’t heard of her, and I haven’t reached out. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible if one of us fished again. I dutifully gave birth to two children. I improperly graduated from college and got divorced. I flirted with the idea of ​​dating women, but was then warned, by several religious mentors, that if I strayed from my faith, I could very well lose custody of my children.

Instead, I married another Jewish man who loved my children almost as much as he loved me. I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t love him back, not the way he deserved, when Hannah’s friend request popped up on my iPhone screen .

I had words for it then, since my years in college and in clinical practice, words I didn’t want to admit applied to me. However, I began to realize that despite my best efforts, I had failed to pray to my homosexual. I got divorced again, when it became too painful to keep lying to each other and hurting the people closest to me.

Hannah followed my posts about moving from my Orthodox neighborhood and to Manhattan, sending little thumbs-up emojis. Then there were leaked photos of me kissing a woman with a flawless barbershop fade. Almost everyone I knew was shocked. Horrified. When Hannah saw them, she sent a voicemail congratulating me, sounding completely unsurprised. “I’m so happy for you,” she said. “It fits you well.”

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve noticed her photos starting to change, with the head covering slowly fading away. There were a few cycles through new names. I knew what it was like: breaking an old life and finding the strength to start over. We texted and finally set up a date.

Twenty years after graduating from high school (and with me again married, this time to a woman), I stood outside the Hummus kitchen on the Upper East Side, scanning every person on the street. Was it the woman in the sweatpants and the hoodie? The one in a sharp blazer and a Chanel handbag? I shouldn’t have stressed. As soon as I saw Hannah, bangs billowing over her arms, smiling brightly under the city lights, I knew.

“Tell me everything,” she said, hugging me.

We went from my stories, to his, to ours. Despite being a fully-fledged adult who talks about complex emotions for a living, I heard myself stutter asking, “Remember – we hooked up?” The only words I could conjure up to ask a question so much bigger than that. If we played our most haunting duet in a closet, with no one around to hear it, did that even happen?

She stopped, her hand around her glass of rosé. “Yeah,” she said, in her 15-year-old Hannah drawl.

I swallowed my own wine of relief. It happened.

As the lights in the restaurant dimmed and a small candle appeared on our table, we began to ask ourselves the questions we had been asking for decades.

Her: “Why did you always leave without saying goodbye?”

Me: “Did I ruin you?”

We never asked the greatest: what could we have been, if we had been brought up to believe that love is never a sin?

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