“Eytan, this is Freddy,” Shimon said when I met up with them on a corner outside of Madison Square Garden.
“Yo,” I said.
“What’s up, man?” said Ben, swinging his arm out to slap me ﬁve. He held a cigarette between his lips and a paper cup of coffee in his left hand. There was something sweet yet grizzled about Ben, who wore the same outﬁt he had on the day we shot hoops at school. Aside from my mom, I didn’t know anyone who drank coffee, and the cup that he held by its white plastic lid made him appear older than his years.
“S’up?” I said, our hands coming together solidly.
“So this is the guy?” Freddy asked Shimon after barely acknowledging me. I recognized him from school. He wore black Levi’s over combat boots and an extra-long, heavy-duty chain wallet suitable for locking up a fast food deliveryman’s bicycle.
“Eytan’s cool,” said Shimon after taking an awkward puff from a cigarette too large for his ﬁngers. He and Freddy wore the same black and orange Nine Inch Nails long-sleeve T-shirt.
“Oh, okay,” said Freddy, unconvinced. “You wanna smoke?”
He held out a pack of Marlboro Lights.
I looked at the slightly crumpled open package and shrugged. Freddy was testing my character. Poking at it a little to see where it was soft enough to shimmy inside and get a clear read on how cool I was.
“I’m good,” I said, waving my hand. “Thanks.”
“Well, all right then,” he said in a mock singsong voice to Shimon.
“How ya doin’?” Shimon asked me, ignoring Freddy. “Pretty good. What’s with the kippah?” I said, gesturing to the gray yarmulke in his left hand.
Ben was distracted by a group of people eating pizza nearby, but Freddy stuck his head close to our conversation as though he couldn’t believe the words coming out of our mouths.
“It’s just in case I run into someone I know,” Shimon said. I understood the instinct. If somehow a friend of my parents happened to show up at this exact time and ﬁnd me without a head covering, I would worry about it for weeks.
Eytan isn’t wearing a yarmulke these days, Ilene or Yocheved or another of my mother’s friends might say to her.
Yes, he is, my mother would reply.
Well, not when I saw him with a group of hoodlums out on the street in Manhattan, he wasn’t.
I would have to lie and tell my mother that the wind blew it off my head and into a gutter or a McDonald’s that I didn’t feel comfortable entering. It was simpler to wear a baseball cap and avoid the issue entirely.
“You really think you are going to run into someone?” I asked Shimon, sensing an opportunity to look cool at his expense.
“I told you, man,” Freddy piped up, “nobody is gonna see you.”
Shimon glumly looked to the sidewalk and slid the head covering into his pocket.
“Yo, let’s get something to eat before heading in,” said Ben, and we started down the block.
City buses and taxis honked at the concertgoers smoking along the sidewalk. They wore black tutus and combat boots that came up past their knees. I wondered how someone with a permanent drawing of a naked lady on his neck explained his decision to his parents and teachers.
In the middle of the block, Shimon, Ben, and Freddy casually strolled into a Sbarro’s pizza as if it were their own bedroom. Sbarro’s was not kosher and, since I had never eaten non-kosher food, I never had a reason to go inside one. I thought about Shimon’s yarmulke while scanning the streets for anyone who looked familiar before ducking in.
On the long counter top lay circles of pizza with mini-meatballs and shrimps poking from cheesy surfaces. There were entire servings of baked ziti on slices and polka-dot patterns of pepperoni that glistened under heat lamps. The choices at the kosher pizza store in Riverdale included cheese and cheeseless with a side of french fries or falafel. Here the creativity was astounding. What could have inspired them to put a full salad on top of a slice of pizza?
Shimon, Ben, and Freddy, each holding a different level of non-kosher, found seats at a table.
“You’re not getting anything?” Freddy asked accusingly as he took a bite of a chicken and barbecue-sauce-covered slice.
“I’m good,” I said, trying to ignore the tone in his voice that asked, Do you actually keep the laws of kosher?
“Lemme see yours?” I asked him.
He handed me the green-and-red-ringed, specially printed paper plate with the once-bitten slice on it. As I lifted up the edge of the pizza to reveal the Sbarro’s logo underneath, I felt like an aboriginal tribesman meeting contemporary man for the ﬁrst time.
“It’s just a pizza,” Freddy said, sitting with one leg bent under his butt, his wallet chain clanking against the steel chair.
“I know,” I said defensively, returning the plate and wiping my hand on a napkin.
“So what’s the problem?”
“Nothing,” I said, turning to Ben and his pepperoni slice with a side of something I’d never seen before. Freddy and his non-kosherness weighed on the back of my neck as I studied the shiny mess of dough on Ben’s plate.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to a reddish leak sneaking out from the beige baked crevasses.
“It’s pizza crust rolled around a bunch of meats,” Ben said with a mouth full of cured pork.
“Try it, man!” Freddy said.
“Yo, if he doesn’t want it, don’t force him,” said Ben as he plunged a plastic knife into the top of his evil pizza roll, forcing it into two chunks.
“Does he not want it?” Freddy asked.
“I don’t know!” Ben said, stuffing one of the pieces into his gaping mouth. “Ursk im.”
While I had always been intrigued and interested in eating non-kosher food, it had never been so readily available to me as it was right now. I didn’t like Freddy’s pushy tone, but part of me wanted to take his entire slice and shove it all in my mouth at once.
See! I eat whatever I want! I’d scream through the tomato sauce and cheese dripping down my mouth and shirt. Lay off.
“Do you eat this pizza, man?” Freddy taunted.
Across the table, Shimon furiously scarfed down a cheese slice. His eyes nervously darted this way and that, as if this were his last meal and an executioner would soon drag him off to the electric chair. Lying next to him absentmindedly on the table, his yarmulke was back out of his pocket.
“Lemme see yours,” I said to Shimon as I pulled the plate and pizza away from his face. It looked a little more vibrant than regular kosher pizza; the whites in the cheeses were whiter and the reds in the sauce, redder. It was like an artist’s rendition of what pizza should look like.
“Hullo, dude? What’s your deal?” Freddy continued jabbing. I felt their eyes all over my face as I sniffed the edge. Just do it, I told myself, and shut this guy up. I placed a half-inch of the slice in my mouth and bit down.
It tasted more rubbery than kosher pizza and I felt a mixture of regret and maturity. In the course of those few millimeters of sauce and cheese, I grew up a little. A piece of my innocence was gone. It wasn’t the most amazing food in the world, and I didn’t feel the immediate urge to burn a Torah or smash a rabbi in the face. It was a piece of food like any other, with no chance of killing me or turning me into something awful. Tasting it was like learning the rather boring explanation to a particularly astounding magic trick.
“Well, I guess that’s not it,” Freddy said, unsatisﬁed. As though had I not eaten the pizza, all the suspicions and questions he had about me would have been answered. So that’s why you’re dressed the way the you are, he might have said, and seem nervous about the concert, and keep watching me smoke my cigarette like you’ve never seen one before, and look like you need to go to the bathroom really badly. Because you don’t eat non-kosher pizza!
I stared blankly into space while chewing. There were no high-ﬁves or slaps on the back the way there would have been if I had survived a ritual hazing and was now a member of a tight-knit gang. I took a second and third, larger bite one after another without stopping to chew before tossing what remained back on Shimon’s plate.
“I do what I want,” I announced with a full mouth, to no one in particular.
After the meal was ﬁnished, Shimon and I slipped out of the restaurant and briskly speed-walked toward the Garden, worried that someone we knew might see us coming out of the non-kosher establishment.
Excerpted from High Holiday Porn. Copyright © 2015 by Eytan Bayme and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
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