It was exactly as I had left it, folded neatly and wrapped in white tissue paper, stored at the top of a plastic crate in my basement.
I had not seen it since clearing out the upstairs cupboard to make way for the baby clothes that my daughter had grown too large to wear. The passage of time inevitably led to its subterranean exile, left to grow moldy in silent abandonment.
The tissue paper was thin; it felt cold on my fingers. The browning tape held fast so that the paper tore, despite the care I used to pull it apart. A light musty smell wafted up, but I barely noticed as my skin touched the faintly aging fabric; the long, thin, knotted threads, which fell limp across my open palm, were as yellow as the fingernails of ancient smokers.
Without self-consciousness, I raised it to my face and breathed in the remnant of his smell, still so familiar after all this time.
– – –
Gavi Halperin came to stay with us in the dying days of the summer break before my second year at university. He wore the same velvet kippot as all the Lakewood boys brought out annually to give a little gravitas to our community’s youth program. But very few of them had his clear olive skin, sparkling grey eyes or smooth, muscular arms.
As his former chavruta, my brother Yonatan insisted – both to my parents and to the rabbi – that rather than be housed with one of the usual families, Gavi would stay with us. From the moment he arrived I silently and gratefully thanked my brother for his assertiveness; I have never loved Yonatan so dearly as I did during those days.
Growing up in a frum family guests were always camped in our basement, but I don’t recall any of their stays with the clarity I remember Gavi’s. Not that anything happened. He was frum and I was frum. And my family was frum. These are not easy conditions for steamy relationships.
But I watched him. And thought about him. And dreamed about him – and not just when I lay in bed at night, the humming of my young mind accompanied by my sisters’ breathing in the darkness, but all of the time.
We didn’t talk much – hardly ever, in fact. He was respectful and I was smitten. Sometimes I caught him watching me, almost unwittingly. As soon as our eyes met he turned away while I blushed and fidgeted in ecstatic agony. And so the weeks passed with nothing more than the naïve fantasies of a former seminary girl and the mounting tension of her unmapped sexuality. I do not know if he, too, felt the tension.
My mother went away for a week not long before Gavi left. As the oldest daughter many of her household chores fell to me, including the laundry. This increased familial responsibility was a source of great hardship and resentment for my youthful soul. Not that I complained: I had learnt long before not to express my discontent for fear of unleashing my parents’ monologues on the weight of their responsibilities.
As I begrudgingly unpacked the strewn washing basket, sorting whites from colours, I came across an unfamiliar pair of socks. It took me a surprisingly long time to realise that this pair of slightly frayed, black socks were in fact items of tremendous loveliness: they were Gavi’s.
My sifting hands uncovered more: shirts, t-shirts, trousers, and, to my consternation, underpants. The discovery of the latter was so confronting that I turned my eyes away as I tentatively picked up these extraordinary items between my forefinger and thumb to toss them into the colour pile. Underpants were too sensational for me; socks, even the beautiful Gavi’s socks, were too stinky; but everything else was gold.
Closing the laundry door I lifted his shirts to my breast and held them close, swaying in a dance of euphoric revelry that would rival the movements of any dybbuk-possessed soul.
The madness started quite innocently. I forgot to return one of his t-shirts to the washing pile and it missed its turn with the colour cycle. So I stashed it away in my bedroom with a pile of unwashed clothes. It was only that night, as I undressed for bed and saw the t-shirt again, that it somehow made its way under my nightdress, pressed against my beating heart.
And then I wore it all the next day.
Each night I took a different piece of Gavi to bed. It was mostly shirts and t-shirts, but as my daring developed and the reality of his approaching departure began to toll in my mind, I spent the final two nights wearing a pair of his shorts. They were soft and lay lightly on my skin. I stroked them slowly, my fingers running with increasing pressure towards the place between my legs that I did not name.
He was scheduled to leave Tuesday evening; I was called on to baby-sit my cousins late on Monday afternoon. To be dragged from home at such a time was a tremendous hardship. But, as my mother often tells me, even today after everything I have been through, blessings come from hardships and we never know what Hashem has in mind.
It was still light when I returned home to a house that was empty and airless, the heat of the day trapped inside. Outside there were shouts and raucous laughter from my brothers.
I wandered to the back window and caught my breath. Directly in my line of vision, as if running straight towards me, was Gavi. They were playing football and he wore nothing but a pair of shorts and tzitzit, which flapped and flew as he moved; his long, muscular legs flexing and moving with a strength that made mine weak; his tight, glistening abdomen all but calling for me to touch it.
I stared and stared and stared. I made no move to switch on lights as dusk descended for fear that it would end their game. And Hashem, in his infinite kindness, gave me a full hour of the most glorious show of manliness that I had witnessed in my short life.
When my father’s key turned in the lock I fled to my bedroom, feigning sleep. His grumbling was a small price to pay.
That night, as I lay in Gavi’s shorts reliving those precious memories, mania befell me. The vision of Gavi’s youthful physique plagued my mind. The beads of sweat, which had rolled down his face and formed pools of darkness on the front of his tzitzit, were tantalising. I had to touch them; I had to smell them. And thus the plan took shape.
It was not difficult really. I had already decided not to return his shorts and one of his t-shirts, which sat on my skin so snuggly that I knew it was meant to be mine. I expected that like most boys he would notice the absence of these items and then move on with a puzzled shrug of his shoulders.
I had no fear of consequences. And I had to have those tzitzit.
Early the next morning, before the boys had stirred, I sneaked into Yonatan’s room, quietly and carefully. I dared not look at Gavi asleep in the corner for fear of loosing my nerve, for fear of wanting to watch him.
The tzitzit lay draped over the back of a chair by his bed. Slowly, breathlessly, I scooped them up and in one quick movement took in their smell and turned towards the door.
It was a daring raid, which I had achieved with aplomb. But foolishly, I turned back at the door to look. Still and unblinking, Gavi’s beautiful grey eyes were watching me.
– – –
I did not see Gavi again. Shame kept me out of the house until well past his departure. It took several months until the vision of those eyes ceased burning my cheeks crimson. Eventually, the mortification subsided and I slipped back into his shorts and t-shirt.
Sometimes, in the privacy of the bathroom, with the shower streaming hard into an empty recess, steam filling the room and clouding over the mirror, I lowered his tzitzit over my naked breasts. His smell filled my nostrils, the fabric rubbed rough over my hard nipples as I ran my hands across the tort, smooth skin underneath.
Yonatan went to Gavi’s wedding about a year before I circled my own beshert under our chuppah. The tzitzit went into hiding, the shorts and t-shirt into the bin. Two years after my husband’s tragic early passing I heard that Gavi and his wife had divorced. Yonatan did not know the circumstances, or if he did, he would not tell me and I did not press him.
This morning, not long after I had dropped the children at school and parked myself behind my desk, I received a Facebook friend request, which I accepted with lightning pulses coursing through my body. A message followed shortly after. It said: “I am looking for my tzitzit. Do you know where I can find them?”
First published by Jewrotica, April 2013