By PD Mallamo
Near the end of graduate school, Kyle met a woman who had lived five years on an Israeli kibbutz. Her hair, parted in the middle, fell in long thick black ringlets. She had blue eyes, an aquiline Hebrew nose, a spare, athletic body. She wrote novels and came to BYU for a semester to lecture on literature of the Diaspora, herself possessing that heritage most orthodox Mormons hold in awe, predating their own by thousands of years and occupying lands and kingdoms about which there was irrefutable proof.
Between classes one afternoon he caught her public instruction in the arts building. A week later he spotted her alone in the cafeteria and took a seat across the table. He quickly reached the conclusion that she’d slipped under the Mormon radar. Even the way she ate a hamburger was sensual, the way she spoke was sensual, at least with him, if not in the lecture hall where she assumed sharply professional comportment. She entranced him, in part because by then Carolyn was slowly but inexorably modifying the agreements of the marriage pact and, aside from bearing two children, bore increasingly scant resemblance to a wife. His situation set him adrift and made him vulnerable and even then knew he did not fully apply his critical faculty to Avivah. A wife, a wife—he had no idea what that meant, something like his mother, he supposed, but what, exactly, was that? His mother was indefinable, not a bad mother, but not a mother, actually. Like his father was and was not a father. They had had other priorities among which he and his siblings were not so much ends or objects but one of many means, prerequisites to achieving the celestial position his parents desired and toward which they labored with might and diligence, throwing their very souls into the enterprise.
Avivah Zand laughed at Mormon pretensions—Let me tell you about God The Father, Babylonian Exile, History History History, so much history one person could not learn it all, even the high points. Marx, Freud, Einstein and a hundred thousand others, in every field, every specialty—physics, law, medicine, government, literature, music, pedagogy. The real apostles. Israel!
You’ve got Brigham Young and Donny Osmond, she said laughing. We’ve got Moses and Barbara Streisand, then quickly grabbed his fingers so he would know it was a joke. She gathered her hair back with both hands and slipped it through a band while she tilted her face slightly upwards and regarded him through half-lidded eyes.
Joseph Smith was a genius and he was a disgrace. If he was a prophet he was a fallen prophet and he poisoned even the tiny bit of antiquity you possess. Now you deny, dissemble, and obfuscate. You get rid of people who write real history, what choice do you have? The whole world sees this, you’re fooling no one. And still you prosper. It’s amazing.
Maybe they see beyond the obfuscation and the lies. Maybe they see truth.
Maybe the truth doesn’t matter, she said. Maybe it’s beside the point. Did you ever think of that?
She admired his beautiful university in the Wasatch and the energy she saw and felt all around her but . . . please. Please. What are you trying to say here? That’s ridiculous. You are babies, just babies. In some ways babies off on the wrong foot. You don’t get an epiphany for every little problem in your life. God has better things to do. You don’t even talk back to Him yet, you’re not equals. He’s waiting for that, the questions, the demands, it makes Him proud. How long will you make Him wait for l’hakshot?
I’ve spoken honestly now, haven’t I? She pulled the hair band tighter still and shook her curls about her neck and shoulders.
Did I mention Woody Allen?
I love Woody Allen.
Do you have conversations like this among your peers?
Now you’ll report me and I have to fly back to New York.
Another humiliated Jew who can’t keep her big mouth shut.
That would be fun.
I knew how this place was before I came. I’d heard, but to me you’re exotic. I had to do this. It feels a little dangerous even though it’s not. Jerusalem, now that’s dangerous.
Maybe next year you go to Bob Jones. Or up the Amazon. Same thing.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Same thing, she laughed. Same thing!
He tried to eat lunch with her whenever he could. He looked for her and, more than once, he suspected, she had looked for him. She seemed to him, felt to him, sounded, smelled free—almost wild, alive, worldly—and though she had inherited the Monolith it did not hold her down. She bore that immense burden like a feather; it bestowed license and liberty, a kind of understanding that comes painfully through a thousand generations—equanimity, savoir faire, fatalism and the joyous indiscriminate opportunism that is its twin. She was raised in New York and spoke Hebrew and French. She wrote in a style she called opulent minimalism and she spared no detail, the men who ran BYU had not read her books, she said, or she would not be here. There must be unknown Mormon libertines who moved silently within expanses of ignorance and assumption and invited people like her to BYU.
She would have taken him into her bed if he had let her, he knew that, and now there were nights he regretted he hadn’t. She had written her New York address and phone number on a napkin with which a moment before he’d dabbed his mustard-stained lips, had held his eyes for an endless second and said Come to New York, and then she was gone for good, goodbye Avivah Zand.
He kept this promise and talisman for one week, then burned it as an offering in his back yard, terrified of all it could mean. Life slipped like sand through his fingers while he, mired in his hopeless American union, was consumed with duty to everyone but himself. She had smelled like cedar, though he never asked what she wore behind her ears or on her graceful neck or wrists or within her thick Assyrian curls and now he wondered where she was and what she was doing, even with whom she was sleeping. He wondered where she walked in that fast easy lilting flower-smelling New York Jewish Girl gait. Almost a love affair. He saw her covering her head with a book and running on a rainy New York sidewalk, smiling her white toothy smile.
He had told no one. She was his secret.