A Fish Out of Water

A Novella by Altimexis

Posted January 16, 2010

Tompkins Square Park

3. A Day at the Park

“Can you believe he did that?” David asked as we walked out of the room at the Blue Moon where Chabad House held their services.

“We all make mistakes,” I admitted.

“Yeah, but that was particularly bad, and the way he totally flubbed it, and became so flustered in the process.”

“It was pretty bad,” I agreed, and then we both broke out in laughter as we recalled what had happened to the poor Bar Mitzvah boy during the service. He had been chanting his Torah portion, when he suddenly lost his place. Now most of us practice sooo many times that we could practically recite our portions in our sleep, but this kid must have been so nervous that his memory failed him, and so he froze up. He just stood there, not speaking… not chanting… not doing anything. Finally, the Hazan, or cantor, tried chanting the verse into the poor boy’s ear, but the kid wasn’t having anything to do with it. He just started crying, and then he dropped his ornamental pointer, which fell onto the floor, and the kid got down on all fours. He was dragging his sacred tallit, which is never supposed to get dirty, all over the floor as he searched for the pointer.

The rabbi had to physically lift the boy back up off the floor to keep him from making a bad situation worse, get him another pointer and then the Hazan chanted the Torah portion with the boy until he felt comfortable enough with it to resume his portion. I felt so bad for the kid. I mean, we all went through the ceremony, but to lose face in such a public way, but then when he gave his speech, he was actually quite charming, and he managed to make a joke about his game of hide and seek with the Torah pointer.

“It was certainly a Bar Mitzvah I’ll never forget,” I said.

“Danny,” David started to ask, “how religious are you?”

“Is this a trick question?” I asked in return.

“Not at all, it’s just that I thought you might like to do some things today, but it all depends on how religious you are.”

“Aren’t we going to lunch at your place?” I asked.

“Actually, I told my dad we’re going to lunch at your place,” he answered.

“But I told my family I’d be at your place for the rest of the afternoon, and might even stay for Havdalah,” I said with surprise. Havdalah is the service at the end of Shabbat, and I certainly had hoped to be with David and his family for that.

“I know that’s what you were expecting to do, and we can still do that if you wish, but if you’d like, I thought we might spend the time doing… some other things.”

“Wait a minute,” I said as I stopped and looked at David, “you mean to say you told your dad you’d be with my family today, and I told my family I’d be with yours? You lied to your father, the rabbi?” I exclaimed.

With the cutest, shy expression I’d ever seen on a boy, he answered, “Yeah… but it’s for a good cause… if you’re not religious.”

“So what did you have in mind?” I finally asked.

“Well… since you’ll be leaving tomorrow, I thought maybe we could spend the day having some fun together. Maybe we could go skating in Tompkins Square Park, or other things like that.”

“On Shabbat!” I practically shouted. Skateboarding on Shabbat was definitely not kosher. I couldn’t believe David had suggested it, but once the initial shock had worn off, a smile took over my face as I thought about the wickedness of it all. It certainly wouldn’t be a first time for me, anyway, but then I remembered a crucial problem, which I related back to David. “But my board’s back in Baltimore,” I quietly added.

“You think I only have one decent board,” he said with incredulity.

“How are we gonna sneak your boards out of your place?” I asked.

“Already done… I snuck them out early this morning, before sunup, and stashed them at the school.”

Wow! He really had thought of everything! “Sweet,” I replied. “Let’s get ’em, and go skating!”

But then David pointed out, “While I can get away with skating in these clothes, you’ll prolly have a hard time explaining to the ’rents how you tore up your suit.”

“Good point,” I agreed. “I guess I’d better change my clothes before leaving the hotel.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he concurred.

We walked up the stairs to the third floor, where my room was located. It’s funny, although we were breaking just about every other rule of Shabbat, we still couldn’t bring ourselves to take the elevator.

When we got to my room, I got out a tee shirt, some board shorts and my sneakers. I immediately took my jacket off and hung it up, and then pulled off my horrendously stiff dress shoes. Next, I slipped my tie off and then stripped out of my dress shirt. A lot of Orthodox boys wear undershirts, but I stopped wearing them when I was twelve. It was just a layer of clothing that seemed totally unnecessary, and from what I’d seen on television shows, most teenage boys don’t wear them.

After hanging up my shirt, I turned to drop my pants, but in doing so, I could now see David, and he was staring at me. No, gawking would be more like it. Maybe he wasn’t used to seeing other boys strip in front of him, but I lived in a house with two other boys with absolutely no privacy.

“You perving on me?” I asked him.

Regaining his composure, he said, “You wish.” He then laughed and added, “Now hurry up, so we can skate, slowpoke.”


“Well, you’re the one doing the striptease in front of me, pervert,” he said, turning my innuendo around and reflecting it back on me, the sneaky devil.

“I’d like to see you change any faster,” I challenged him as I switched into my shorts and laced up my sneakers. “Now let’s go!”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll leave my suit jacket here, too,” David said as he stripped out of it and hung his up next to mine. “Much better… it’s too warm out to dress in all black.”

“Hey, I’ve got an extra pair of board shorts and some tee shirts if you’d like to change into something more comfortable,” I suggested.

“Danny, with my side curls, I’d stand out like a sore thumb if I dressed like you. It’s bad enough as it is that I’m dressed as a Lubavitcher, but mixing styles would be even worse. At least I’m comfortable in my own clothes.

“Shall we?” he asked as he motioned toward the door.

“By all means,” I answered.

After stopping by David’s school to pick up his skateboards, we headed north on Essex, crossing Delancey and then Houston, and entered the East Village. We continued up Avenue A and crossed First, Second, Third and Fourth streets in quick succession. There were a lot of cute shops and restaurants, and they were all open and filled with people - young people having fun. We crossed Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets, and I was amazed to see a large park with a modern playground, basketball courts and ornate gardens - right in the middle of the East Village. No it wasn’t Central Park, but it was plenty big for skating.

“Trouble is, I’m starving,” I complained before we got started.

“I figured we’d grab a bite first. There’s a great Ukrainian restaurant, right by the park called Odessa. You game?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, “but what about money?”

“I brought plenty of money, Danny,” David with a mischievous smile. “That’s one of the reasons I asked if you’re religious… well, that and the skating, of course,” he admitted.

That was sure a relief. As Orthodox Jews, we weren’t allowed to carry, let alone spend money on Shabbat. David and I were breaking quite a few rules today, and we didn’t care. We didn’t care one bit.

“The food here’s awesome. Order anything you want. It’s on me. Next time we come here, after you move to New York, it’ll be your treat. When I looked at the menu, I was surprised at how Jewish the food all was. They had potato pancakes, blintzes, which are like crêpes, borscht, basically beetroot soup, and so many traditional specialties. The only thing that was really different was the pierogies, but they were sure good.

When I commented on how similar the food was to Jewish food, David explained, “You know, what we think of as Jewish is really Eastern European. We assimilated so much of the local culture during our years in exile. Same with a lot of our religious traditions, which is why I think it’s all a bunch of bologna. If you want to eat real Jewish food, go to any Middle Eastern restaurant and have some hummus, tubule, falafels and the like. That’s what our ancestors ate in the ‘Land of Milk and Honey.’

“I never thought of it that way before,” I admitted.

“Not many people have, but it’s the truth.” David stated emphatically.

“So I take it you’re not really all that religious?” I asked and he nodded his head. “Surprising for a Lubavitcher, particularly a rabbi’s son.”

“I’m not my father,” David stated simply. “I take it you’re not very religious, either.”

“Not at all,” I confirmed. “In fact, I don’t even believe in God, to be honest with you, but please don’t tell my family that.”

“No worries there, Danny. I’m sure we both have secrets we don’t want our families to know about,” he said, making me wonder what else he was hiding, “but not believing in God is a biggie. Me, well, I do think there’s a god, but not the God in the Bible. The whole idea of a vengeful god makes me want to puke, you know? If there is a god, She’s better than that,” David said with a smile, and I smiled back. I liked the way he called God a ‘she’.

“You go to camp, or ever been camping, Danny?” David asked.

“Sure, I went to camp when I was younger,” I answered.

“So’d I.” David continued. “Do you remember looking up into the night sky, seeing the Milky Way from up in the mountains?”

“The sky looks so different at camp,” I agreed, “far away from the city lights.”

Exactly! You can’t help but be struck by the vastness of the universe and humankind’s insignificance when you’re at camp,” he said.

“But that’s what made me think there isn’t a god,” I said. “All those stars up in the sky… thousands upon thousands of stars… many of them with planets that may harbor life. If there were a god, why would he bother with us?” I asked.

“That’s a very complex question, Danny,” David replied as he looked deeply into my eyes. “I mean, the nature of the universe pretty much rules out any chance of the Biblical story of God, doesn’t it? And yet, the scientific explanation… that the universe came into existence because of a random Big Bang doesn’t say anything about why we are here.”

“Does there have to be a reason why?” I asked.

“Yes, I think there does,” he answered, “but not in the way the Talmudic rabbis thought there was. For them, God’s existence was never in question, so the reason for our existence was centered on the question of God’s creation.

“You ever read a book called The River That Flows Uphill, by William Calvin?” David asked.

“It’s one of my favorites,” I answered him, “and it supports my philosophy,” I added.

“Please don’t tell my father that I’ve read it, but to me, it epitomizes the reason why I believe there is a God. I know the author views it quite the opposite way, but the notion that evolution is a river that runs uphill and that it will always lead to the development of intelligent life proves my point.”

“But why, David?” I asked. “It just shows that there is no need for a God… intelligent life will arise, pretty much no matter what.”

“And left to its own devices, more than likely destroy itself, Danny,” David challenged, “but you’re forgetting something even more fundamental than the Law of Evolution, and that’s the nature of the universe itself. Why is it that we have a universe with these particular fundamental laws in the first place? There would be no Law of Evolution, were there no three-dimensional universe with these particular physical properties.”

“Interesting…” I said. “I read something about this once, however,” I suddenly remembered. “We wouldn’t be sitting around debating the question in the first place if the universe didn’t have the right physical properties to support intelligent life, would we? For all we know, maybe there were a billion, trillion universes before ours that didn’t have the right physical properties until ours finally came along.”

Laughing, David said, “Danny, there’s no way we can ever truly know the answer to that question, but I think the bottom line is that regardless of whether or not there is a God, it’s up to us to make the most of life on earth, don’t you?”

“David, I couldn’t agree with you more,” I answered.

“To me, there’s nothing more dangerous than those who believe that God will save us from our own destruction, or that the destruction of the world is actually necessary to bring about the coming of God’s kingdom,” David suggested.

“People like that are downright scary,” I agreed.

What David was saying was so deep - so intense. I’d never met a boy like him before, and he was making me feel something I’d never felt for another person outside of my family. I had best friends in the neighborhood back in Baltimore, but what I was beginning to feel for David was much stronger, and it was scaring the shit out of me. I had to look away, for fear he’d see into my soul, but then he grabbed my hands across the table, only intensifying the feelings inside of me.

“The one thing I know,” he added, “is that God does not bother himself with the affairs of humankind. God can be a force for good, but only humanity can be a force for evil. We don’t need to blame that on the Devil… we’re perfectly capable of that on our own. I also know that God doesn’t hate. Hatred is a human emotion. God doesn’t condone torture, bigotry, enslavement, war, or greed. God doesn’t play favorites of one race or one religion against another, and he certainly doesn’t teach us to put to death the man who lies down with another man as with a woman. God doesn’t teach us to hate people who are born gay,” he concluded, making sure his point was crystal clear.

My God, he actually used the “g” word - a word I’d been hiding from for perhaps two years. It was a word I’d been reluctantly realizing more and more that probably applied to me, but was I ready to admit that, even to myself? Did David realize I was gay? My God, did I just come out to myself? Was I ready to admit it to anyone else just yet? Was David hinting that maybe he was gay? The more I thought of the word, the easier it became to think about it, but it still scared the crap out of me.

Finally, mustering all the courage I thought I’d ever have, I asked David, “Is there a reason you just said that?”

We were still holding hands, and I immediately felt a change in the texture of David’s skin. It was really weird to feel that. His skin temperature actually dropped, and his hands became clammy. He broke eye contact with me and looked down. He was nervous.

Eventually, he looked back up at me with his trademark, mischievous grin and said. “Let’s go skate.”

A moment had passed. I think he had come very close to telling me something, but perhaps neither of us was ready, and so after he paid the bill, we grabbed our boards and headed back out the door and into the park.

It turned out that David did know the other skaters in the park after all, even though he claimed they all treated him as some kind of weirdo. I got the distinct impression that this wasn’t the only time he had snuck out on Shabbat to skate, even if it was strictly against the rules. Although David was Hasidic and different from the other kids, he was certainly respected. Man, could he ever skate. I considered myself to be an excellent jumper, but he could run circles around me. I was in awe of his skills.

We ended up skating for hours, until it was very nearly dark. Reluctantly, we headed back at the end of the day, stopping for a quick bite to eat along the way. I couldn’t recall ever having had a better day in my entire life.

By the time we got back to my hotel, we were both way too sweaty for a couple of boys who had spent the day in observance of Shabbat, and so we took turns showering in my room. Although I tried to give David his privacy after he came out of the shower, I couldn’t help but stare at him. Was I checking him out? After our discussion earlier in the afternoon, my questions about my own sexuality were becoming more and more clear to me.

David brought me out of my trance by asking, “See something you like?”

Rather than deny it, I answered, “In your dreams,” which he countered with a sigh and, “Well, one can always hope.” Typical locker room banter - or maybe something more.

Before we parted, we exchanged e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers, and then once more, David kissed me on the cheek and we hugged each other tightly.


Our final day in New York started with brunch at my Uncle’s place. We were joined by a real estate agent, Ms. Schumer, who gave my parents the low down on the market, and explained what we’d be doing for the rest of the day, before returning to Baltimore. Of course, us kids really weren’t paying all that much attention, but I did pick up bits and pieces of the conversation, even as my head was in the clouds thinking about my day yesterday, spent with David.

“Anyway, like I was saying, the market never really cooled off here in Manhattan the way it did in the rest of the country,” Ms. Schumer yapped away. “Prices fell maybe five percent, but they’re right back to where they were before the financial crisis hit, so don’t expect to find any bargains.

“Things are still taking several months to sell, but unsold inventory is finally catching up with demand. The market is tightening up and when demand outstrips supply, you can expect to see prices start to rise again.”

“So what’s the bottom line, right now,” Dad asked. “What can we expect to pay, let’s say, for a place like this one?”

“This is a nice place,” Ms. Schumer stated flatly. “It’s been fully renovated, it’s large and it has three terraces. It has mostly interior views, though, but you can see the East River and the Williamsburg Bridge. I could get three and a half million for this place,” she concluded.

“Three and a half million!” Dad shouted.

“Sid,” Uncle Mortie said, “we bought the first apartment before the prices shot up, added on when the two adjacent units came on the market and we endured months of renovations, and while the cost of renovating the apartment wasn’t cheap, it was still less than buying a renovated unit. You also pay a premium for being on a high floor. Most Orthodox families live on the first four floors, where the prices are considerably lower.”

“That’s a good point,” Ms. Schumer said. “In fact there’s a fully renovated four bedroom, three bathroom, 2100 square foot flat on the fourth floor we’ll be looking at today, and it’s listed at only just under a million and a half. It even has a river view. It has a modern kosher kitchen with two full sets of appliances, two sinks and more than ample counter space to keep your meat and dairy products completely separate… it’s a steal.”

“A million and a half is a steal?” Dad exclaimed more than asked.

“Actually, it sounds very nice,” Aunt Blanche countered, “but keep in mind that you’ll get a lot of noise from FDR Drive. Still, that’s not a lot of money for around here.”

“Sid,” our uncle added, “for one thing, I think you’ll find your house back in Baltimore is worth a lot more than you think it is. There’s a high demand for Orthodox-ready houses in that neighborhood and you’ve got, what, six large bedrooms, plus a study, a family room and a double kosher kitchen? I know house prices in Baltimore are low compared to just about anywhere else on the east coast, but I bet you can get close to that much for your house.”

“No friggin’ way,” Dad said.

“Well, a million anyway,” Uncle Mortie said.

Maybe…” Dad agreed.

The rest of the morning, we spent looking at apartments. Some of them were very nice, and some of them would need a lot of work, but the one thing that was clear was that we’d need to get used to living in a lot less space than we had in Baltimore. When we were done, we went back to our uncle’s apartment for lunch and Ms. Schumer explained some of the ‘incentives’ we could get to help us move to the Lower East Side.

“This is all strictly off the record,” she began, “and as far as anyone is concerned, this conversation never took place.

“The management here at Co-op Village is very proactive and wants to do everything it can to foster what’s left of Jewish life on the Lower East Side. To that end, they have enacted, off the books, some unofficial subsidies for Orthodox Jews who move into the co-ops. Firstly, there is a so-called flip tax that the seller is supposed to pay the co-op upon the sale of a property. It’s 15% for a first sale and 7.5% for subsequent sales. We will return that 7.5% directly to you, off the books. Sometimes we lower your maintenance, or we pay part of your tax bill, but one way or another, we find a way to get that money to you.

“Secondly, if your place needs renovations, we have a number of contractors who will do the work at cost. It will save you a small fortune. The going rate to renovate a standard kitchen in Manhattan is a hundred thousand, plus the cost of your appliances. A kosher kitchen can run you double that. We can get it done for fifty thousand. And finally, we can get you a parking space. That may not sound like much, but when you consider that the waiting list is twenty years long and that we can get you a space or even two, right away, that’s quite a perk for moving here.”

But then Dad shocked the hell out of us by asking, “How much was the maintenance on that five bedroom place?”

“Dad,” I said, “That place listed for something like two million dollars!”

“One million, nine-ninety,” Ms. Schumer corrected me. “Yes, here it is,” she went on. “The monthly maintenance, or rent as we co-operators call it, is $2176.”

“I assume that’s non-negotiable?” Dad asked.

“Well, we are giving you $150 thousand back in cash as an incentive to move here. Even if we cut your rent in half, it would take you more than ten years to save that much.”

“But why not both?” Dad asked. “After all, we won’t be able to benefit from the renovation incentive. Oh, and is there any room for negotiation on the price?”

“Sid,” Mom broke in, “You haven’t even been offered the job, yet.”

“If you like the apartment,” Ms. Schumer countered, “there’s no reason you can’t put in a contract contingent on getting a job. People do it all the time. That way you’ll lock in a price, which is probably a good thing with an economic rebound just around the corner, you’ll get the apartment you like, and you have little to lose. The worst that can happen is that someone else will buy the unit out from under you before you get your job lined up, but you can always remove the contingency as soon as you have the job.”

“But what if something even nicer comes on the market in the meantime?” Mom asked.

“You know what they say about a bird in the hand…” Ms. Schumer said.

“And you just want to make a quick sale,” Aunt Blanche challenged.

“But honey, that’s one of the nicest apartments for the money I’ve seen around here,” Uncle Mortie countered.

“True…” Aunt Blanche admitted.

“That means a lot to us,” Dad said. Turning back to Ms. Schumer, he said, “Do you think the seller would take a million-seven, contingent only on my getting a job and not on the sale of our house in Baltimore?”

“We can always try,” Ms. Schumer said.

“And I want two parking spaces and a maintenance reduction in addition to the 7.5%,” Dad went on.

“You drive a hard bargain, Dr. Weiss.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of David of Hope in editing this story and Low Flyer in proofreading it, as well as the support of Gay Authors, Awesome Dude and Nifty for hosting it. I would also like to thank Rigel for correcting some of my errors with respect to traditional Orthodox Judaism. This story was written as part of the Gay Authors 2009 Novella Writing Contest.

Disclaimer: This story is fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is purely coincidental and unintended. Although a number of the locations, businesses, institutions and residences described in the story are real, the author in no way implies the actual behavior of the owners, managers or other individuals at these establishments. Some of the characters in the story may discuss or engage in homosexual acts, some of whom are underage. Obviously, anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. Opinions expressed in the story are those of the characters and they do not necessarily reflect those of the author, nor of the hosting website. The author retains full copyright, and permission must be obtained prior to duplication of this story in any form.