It had been a year since I left Monsey, N.Y., the ultra-Orthodox town where I’d grown up. And it had been a year since I’d left Orthodoxy behind, too—a time when I celebrated Halloween for the first time and spent Friday nights drinking in bars instead of davening in shul. But there was one thing I hadn’t left behind: my feelings for the girl in the FBI T-shirt.
We had met when she’d walked into Jerusalem Pizza the previous winter, wearing a top emblazoned with the letters “FBI”; I was working at Monsey’s kosher pizzeria during my senior year of high school. We had sneaked out on exactly one date, but her parents didn’t approve of me. I had already started pulling away from Orthodoxy—I went to public school, I didn’t wear a yarmulke anymore—and I wasn’t observant enough for their daughter. Her parents came to visit me at the restaurant and told me it was over. After one more phone call, we never spoke again.
But now, as I sat at my desk in my freshman dorm room at Five Towns College on Long Island, listening to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” for the fourth time in a row on my headphones, my cell phone rang. It was my older sister Miriam, who had just graduated from haircutting school and found a job at a salon in Monsey.
“The FBI girl is working at the salon I’m working at—I was training her today,” she told me excitedly. “She still really likes you.”
Maybe her situation has changed, I thought. Maybe she’s out of the community, too, and now we can talk and see each other. I wanted to kiss her again (even if it was only on the cheek), and I wanted to smell those flowers in her hair again.
I asked Miriam, “Can you get her number for me?”
I met the FBI girl at the Palisades Mall in Nyack on a cold Thursday night when I went home for winter break. As I walked up to her in Aeropostale, she was holding a skirt close to her hips and looking into a mirror. When she noticed I was standing next to her, she smiled and hugged me. It felt good to have her arms around me again. I smelled her hair and I felt safe.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said, grabbing my hand. “I don’t want my mother to find out. You never know who’s shopping here from Monsey.”
At 18, the FBI girl was still sneaking around, still scared of the repercussions of her family and community. It was a community member who had told her mother about us when we got together on Shabbos a year earlier, so her concerns were legitimate. I was only 17, but I was in college, and at that moment I didn’t care about the community because there were no more repercussions for me; I had already left. In fact, I felt like I was rubbing my irreverence in the face of the community and her parents if I hung out with her again, and I liked that feeling. I felt invincible. But the FBI girl’s fears won out. We skipped down two flights of escalators, walked outside to the parking lot in the 30 degree temperatures, and headed toward my car.
The FBI girl sat in the Saturn’s passenger seat and I sat in the driver’s seat. I turned the car on and switched the heat up high. I pressed play on the CD player and Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning” played.
“Is this your car?” she asked.
“I borrowed it from Miriam,” I said.
Just lean in and kiss her, I thought.
“I wish I had a car,” she said. “I’d be able to go places without being monitored every minute.”
“How did you get here tonight?” I asked.
“My friend drove me,” she said. “I actually have to meet her soon. I can’t be out too late.”
“You should leave Monsey and go to college,” I said. “There are no rabbis or parents watching your every move. Then we would be able to meet up whenever we want.”
“Like my parents would support that? Never in a million years,” she said. “They barely let me leave the house.”
“That’s why you gotta get the hell out of there,” I said.
“I know,” she said.
The FBI girl wanted to get out, but she didn’t know where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. She had no direction. She had recently discovered the website Askmoses and realized there are other ways to be Jewish; she took a liking to the Chabad Lubavitch community. It made her feel more relaxed and free; she wasn’t going to hell after all.
“You have beautiful eyes,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling.
“I missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” she said.
Don’t ask her, just do it.
I placed my hand on her knee, leaned over the divider separating us, and put my mouth to hers. She tasted like sweet peppermint. I had goose bumps. My stomach felt like it was quickly sinking down and out of my body, like it did when I rode roller coasters as a child. But it felt good. I felt accepted. I felt loved.
We arranged to meet again after Shabbos. She had recently moved in with her grandparents because she wasn’t getting along with her parents: They were forcing her to visit with rabbis in the community to discuss her rebellious ways—dropping out of seminary, wearing tight clothing, and hanging out with Monsey’s “troubled” boys. They wanted her to get married and have children; she just wanted the chance to be a teenager.
Saturday night, I borrowed my mother’s gray SUV and drove to the FBI girl’s grandparents’ house. With her in the passenger seat, I parked in the back parking lot of East Ramapo High School, where I’d graduated that May. The lot was dark except for a few overhead lights that went on and off intermittently. To my right, I saw the infield dirt of the baseball field I played on when I was on the varsity team. In the rearview mirror, I saw the outlines of the tennis courts where I’d volleyed with a classmate in the spring. It felt good to be back at the school where I began my transition into the secular world. I turned the car off and we embraced. We moved to the backseat and began to kiss. I took off her winter coat; she wore a short black skirt and a blue turtleneck top. I felt like I was finally doing what I should have been doing when I was in high school—fooling around in a car in my high school’s parking lot.
“Let’s put the seats down so we’ll have more room,” I said.
“OK,” she said.
I folded the backseat forward. I kissed her on her neck and she trembled. I kissed her behind her ears, and continued down her body. Then I heard the crunching sound tires make when they roll over gravel. The sound you hear in a horror film, warning you that something bad is going to happen. I lifted my head up, looked out the window, and saw a police car slowly circling the SUV.
“Shit!” I whispered.
All I could think about was getting arrested and being thrown into jail. You leave the community and get thrown into jail, my rabbis yelled at me in my head. Was God getting me back for leaving the covenant?
“Stay down,” I said.
“OK,” she said.
I waited for a car door to open, footsteps, a knock on the driver-side window. But nothing. A moment later I picked my head up and looked out the window. The parking lot was empty. The overhead light turned on.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
I drove the SUV to a small parking lot that overlooked the pond in Willow Tree Park, just off Willow Tree Road, where my therapist’s office was. I turned the headlights off.
We stayed in the front seats, kissing and caressing each other, until I saw a light shining in my rearview mirror. A police car pulled up behind us.
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Two times in one night?”
I zipped up my pants and pulled my shirt down to cover my unbuckled belt. The FBI girl zipped up her winter coat. The officer stepped out of his car and walked toward the SUV. I rolled down the window.
“Identification, please,” the officer said.
I handed him my license.
“I don’t have mine,” the FBI girl said.
Fuck, I thought. The officer thinks I have a prostitute in my car.
“What are you guys doing out here?”
“Just hanging out,” I said.
“All right, sit tight,” the officer said, and walked back to his car with my license.
“Why didn’t you bring ID with you?” I asked the FBI girl.
“I didn’t think I would need it,” she said.
I’m definitely going to jail, I thought. Suddenly fooling around in a car at night didn’t seem like such a good idea. God was definitely getting me back.
It started to snow. The snowflakes were heavy and quickly covered the windshield. I couldn’t understand why the FBI girl wasn’t responsible enough to bring her ID with her. It was just another reminder that she still lived in a naive religious world. But mostly, I was nervous that I’d be in trouble for fooling around in a car in the lot of a community park. Indecent exposure? Public nudity? Then I reminded myself that I didn’t have a criminal background. I was sure this wasn’t the police officer’s first time encountering rebellious Orthodox Jewish teenagers trying to have some fun in a public setting in Monsey.
Moments later, the officer stepped out of his car and walked up to my window. He handed me my license back.
“The park closes after midnight,” he said, “that’s why I’m here.”
I looked at the clock. It was close to one in the morning.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We didn’t know.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “Have a good night.”
The officer turned his car’s spotlight off and left the parking lot.
“That was close,” I said, laughing.
The FBI girl smiled.
I turned the windshield wipers and headlights on. The snow still fell heavily, but I felt light, free.
We stayed in touch by phone and email, and after winter break ended, I returned to Five Towns College. Two weeks later, I was in my dorm room when the FBI girl called; she was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to hang out anymore. “I wish I had as much courage as you to leave the community,” she said to me on the phone. Word had gotten back to her parents that she had met up with me again and that we were in contact. The pressure from her parents and community leaders to stay religious, marry, and have children was intensifying.
“You’re a strong person,” I said. “You could leave if you want to. I think you do have the courage.” I didn’t want to lose her again.
“I’m a wimp,” she said. “That’s the truth. I give into my parents because I don’t have the strength to fight them. I feel trapped. It’s so unfair.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s OK. I just don’t want to damage your future, because I know you have a bright one. You should meet someone who is happy and will help you soar.”
“You’re not damaging my future, don’t worry.”
Although I was trying to convince her that she wasn’t going to harm my future, deep down I knew that having a relationship with someone still on the fringes of Orthodoxy wouldn’t be healthy. Nor would I want to be with someone who couldn’t take control of her own life, the way I was in the process of doing.
“I’m not being given the chance to be a normal teenager,” she said. “When I think of my life I am so lost. I really have no idea what I want with my life. I’m convinced my parents want me to be miserable.”
The FBI girl started crying.
“I should just run away, hook up with some guy, and never look back,” she said. “Maybe if I get married my parents will finally leave me alone.”
“Don’t get married to run away,” I said. I thought of my parents and how they escaped their unhappy childhoods by becoming religious, getting married, and starting a family at a young age. “My parents did that and it didn’t turn out so well. They’re divorced now with eight kids.”
“I wish there was someone out there similar to you who’s religious so I could leave my house and start a normal life.”
“I’m sorry you’re feeling trapped,” I said. “I really care about you.”
“I know you care about me. I care about you, too. I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m going to miss you, too,” I said.
“I hope we could still be friends.”
“I hope so, too.”
There was an awkward silence.
“I should go now,” she said.
She hung up.
I sat up on my bed. I felt sad for her but relieved that I wouldn’t have to navigate a life with someone on the fringe. I was still considered a goy to her family and the community, and I knew that when I reunited with the FBI girl, but I also thought that maybe there was a chance that we could work it out. But luckily I was critical enough at that point to understand that to continue to try and tether ourselves together would ultimately be detrimental to both of our lives.
A few weeks after that phone call, I got an email from her inviting me to her engagement party in Monsey. I felt like crying. Her parents and the community had won.
I didn’t make the engagement party.
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