I & Thou
The Orthodox Jewish student moved into the freshman dormitory on Sunday morning. Celeste and I watched as the odd looking creature accompanied by an equally exotic, extended family lugged his belongings up to the second floor landing, three doors down from our room. All the women were homely as sin with chalky skin that wouldn’t tan in a hundred cloudless summer days stretched end to end. Even in the oppressive, Indian summer heat, they wore drab skirts that hung down well below their knees, their hair tied up in kerchiefs. The men folk wore black hats or yarmulkes, white shirts buttoned at the wrist and dark pants.
The boy – his name was Joel Shapiro - had a scraggily black beard and piles of kinky hair obliterating his ears. As if that wasn’t weird enough, he sported a pair of old-fashioned, wire-framed glasses with absurdly thick, coke-bottle lenses. Like some incongruous caricature from the previous millennium, he lugged a Mackintosh computer into the room depositing it on a study desk before lumbering disjointedly back down stairs for more personal effects.
“The Yarmulke’s the only freshman with a room to himself,” Celeste grumbled. She had dubbed him ‘the Yarmulke’ almost from the minute Joel arrived at school. Celeste and I roomed together. She drank too much and was a bit of a slut but tons of fun. Celeste’s gynecologist put her on birth control in eleventh grade, and the girl went hog wild. No need for moderation or self-control; the tiny, multi-colored pills trumped all moral taboos. Problem was, her humor could get out of hand, downright vitriolic at times and she never knew when to back off.
A lot of girls gained weight when they went away to college. The ‘freshman fifteen’ – that’s what they called it. I had seen pictures of Celeste from her high school years when she was svelte and a real looker. But she gained considerable weight since then and, being petite, the surplus flesh had taken up permanent residence on her hips, thighs and mannish shoulders. She was still passably pretty but for how long with all the booze she consumed on weekends?
“He probably has religious or dietary restrictions,” I offered.
“What I wouldn’t give for a private room!” Celeste groaned. The Jewish boy was wearing a black, felt hat now which looked rather silly given the high humidity and endless parade of undergrads wearing sweatshirts with the college logo or chic, designer outfits.
Friday evening the third week in October, Celeste staggered back to the dorm polluted out of her gourd. “Yarmulke at ten o’clock,” she smaned, garbling her words. It was another of her acerbic jokes. If my roommate whispered, “Yarmulke at ten o’clock,” we gazed left to see the hairy Jewish boy loping towards us with his disjointed gait. Everybody laughed hilariously but it was mean-spirited, and I always felt guilty afterwards – both for joining in the buffoonery and making Joel the butt of our infantile humor.
In the hallway three doors down, the Jewish boy was easing a key into the lock. He held a navy blue, felt pouch with a Star of David embroidered on the front in gold thread. A thick black book was tucked under his arm. Cracking the door, he disappeared into the room. “These religious Jews… what’s their take on the birds and the bees?”
“Leave him alone, Celeste,” I hissed.
“Do you think he wears that foolish felt hat to bed when he makes love?” Celeste snickered idiotically. She was really blotto – sloppy, fall-down drunk. Staggering out the door, she made her way to Joel’s room and pounded on the door. When it opened, she brushed passed him into the room, the door slamming shut with a resounding thud.
Half an hour passed. I peeked out in the hallway. All was quiet. Not a sound in the hallway or any of the adjoining dorm rooms. Then the third door down creaked opened slowly and Joel stepped out in the corridor. He was still dressed formally with a dark jacket and his signature yarmulke. Long strands of curly hair hung down in back of his ears like tendrils. I remembered seeing such locks in artwork depicting the Medieval Hassidic Jews. As he passed in the hallway Joel looked up and smiled – the gentlest expression of human affection. “Good evening,” he said softly and sauntered off down the hallway.
For a good five minutes after he disappeared, I couldn’t stop shaking.
Gathering my nerves back under control, I shuffled down the hallway and cracked the door to his room open. The air reeked of vomit and sloe gin. Celeste was lying on the bed, fully clothed and sound asleep. A damp towel and washcloth was stretched over the back of a chair in the corner of the room. In a drunken stupor, Celeste moaned and rolled over on her stomach but never opened her eyes. A minute later she was snoring like a lumberjack. On the desk, a book lay open with the pages facing down – Martin Buber, I and Thou. Letting myself quietly out, I hurried back to my own room.
Sunday, Celeste was too hung over to make more of a nuisance of herself than she already had the previous night and I kept my distance. “You smell like a goddamn garbage truck in late August,” I muttered around noontime. She hadn’t bothered to brush her teeth or bathe and the stench from dried vomit and rancid body odor was overpowering in the claustrophobically small dorm room.
Joel Shapiro never returned, his room locked up tight through the entire weekend. On Monday morning I anticipated seeing him in a History of Western Civilization lecture hall, but he never showed up for class. Finally, in the late afternoon, I noticed the door three rooms down slightly ajar.
“Where’s Joel?” I sputtered in total disbelief when a photogenic youth sporting short-cropped hair stood leaning against the door jamb.
“Who are you looking for?” The Waspish youth was obscenely handsome with a strong jaw, wide cheekbones and ashen skin tones.
“The Jewish boy... this is his room.”
Decked out in khaki slacks, IZOD sports shirt and boat shoes, the student smirking at me resembled a fashion plate straight out of GQ Magazine. The interloper’s face dropped and tone turned rancorous.. “Do I look freakin’ Jewish?” There was no mistaking his tone or intent. “This is my room.” Without any further elaboration, he slammed the door shut.
“Where can I find this book?” The reference librarian glanced at the slip of paper I nudged across the counter and indicated a row of stacks. “Philosophy follows computer sciences in the one hundred grouping.”
I located Buber’s I and Thou with little trouble and settled in at a table toward the back of the room. The tattered volume with a badly frayed spine was all that remained - the meager legacy of one Joel Shapiro. I read from the preface:
A person sitting next to a complete stranger on a park bench may enter into an "I-Thou" relationship with the stranger merely by beginning to think positively about people in general. The stranger gets instantaneously drawn into a mental or spiritual relationship. It is not necessary for the stranger to have any idea that he is being drawn into an "I-Thou" relationship for such relationships to arise.
Strange! I experienced something similar when Joel brushed past me in the hallway, gracing me with his introverted smile.
Yarmulke at ten o’clock! With her sarcastic pronouncements and boorish insolence, Celeste was the queen of I-It. She reduced the orthodox Jew to a farcical nonentity. My roommate used and abused people for her own expedient self-interest. On a drunken whim, she could fornicate with Tom on Monday – Dick and Harry over the remainder of the week - the male of the species being little more than interchangeable widgets.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a supple body sliding into the seat beside me. “The last time you visited, you asked about the Jew. Why don’t you try again?” the brazen jerk, who presently resided in Joel Shapiro’s dorm room, muttered.
“I don’t follow you.”
“The Yid… the former tenant, who vacated the premises posthaste, without formal notice… you asked about him.” His voice was devoid of anger or malice.
“After your roommate puked her guts out, making an ignominious fool of herself, he spent the night at a motel off campus.”
His casual, off-hand tone was beginning to frighten me. “How do you know this?”
“In the morning the Jew with the coke-bottle glasses had the desk clerk reserve the room for a second night.” Only now did he pause and look me full in the face. “You still don’t get it, do you?” When there was no response, he continued, “Then the Jew ate a leisurely breakfast at a diner a few blocks down – bacon and eggs, Italian toast and home fries. When the mall opened, he purchased a whole new wardrobe, which he lugged back to the motel, where he snipped most of the scraggily beard away with a pair of scissors. A Gillette, twin-blade razor took care of the rest.” His head bobbed up and down, confirming the stark veracity of what he was telling me. “At a hair salon, he completed the makeover.”
“But Joel wore old-fashioned, wire-rimmed glasses,” I protested.
Reaching into his pocket, the youth withdrew a small contact lens case with two, round compartments. “Among my family, I’ve always been,” he rushed ahead, anticipating my muddled thoughts, “a bit of a rabble rouser.... a non-conformist.”
“That’s putting it mildly.” I grinned sheepishly. “I’m glad you’re back, Joel.”
“Never left.” He glanced at the Buber lying open on the reading table and then placed a hand gently on my forearm. “Don’t tell Celeste about our little conversation.”
“Have you seen the dreamboat who moved into the Yarmulke’s old room?” Celeste tittered. She had already set her sights on the undergraduate Adonis and, in dirty-street-fighter fashion, was warning off the female competition.
“You already met him?”
“After a fashion.” I had no intention letting her know that the pretty boy three doors down was one and the same with the tortured Jew she had scared off premises less than a week earlier.
I hated Celeste. I hated her smarmy, self-promoting nastiness - the way she reduced everything decent to chintzy reproductions. I hated the way she smelled the morning following her drunken debacle and her unwillingness to ever accept a molecule of responsibility for the mayhem she caused. I hated her tabula rasa approach to life. All was not forgiven. To her primitive mindset, there were no consequences for loutish behavior.
Celeste ran a comb over her brunette hair and smeared a clear gloss on her thin lips. “If you got no objections, I’m gonna pay a little visit to the male hotty down the hall.”
“Should I leave a night light?”
She flashed me a dirty look and flitted out the door.
This was déjà vu. A rotten feeling welled up in the pit of my stomach. Grabbing my sweater, I headed over to the campus lounge and settled in with a cup of mocha latte cappuccino. Nerves on edge, the caffeine only further scrambled my agitated brain. Around eight o’clock I headed back to the dorm. Celeste was curled up in a fetal position on top of the bed whimpering fitfully. “What happened?”
“No, of course not.” She cupped her hands over her face too ashamed to even look at me. “I almost wish he had raped me,” she added with self-loathing. “At least I wouldn’t feel nearly as bad.”
“You’re making no sense.”
Celeste finally uncurled her legs and sat up on the edge of the bed. “We got to talking… joking around and one thing led to another. He was kissing me on the neck and then, before I knew it, my bra came off…” Celeste suddenly fell silent, showing no inclination to continue. “Then he asks, ‘Who’s president of the United States?’” “‘George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge… Who’s president?’ he repeats the same foolish question and like a goddamn fool I say ‘George W. Bush.’”
“That was last time around,” I replied. “Obama’s been in the White House two and a half years now.”
“He called me a birdbrain and said he could never date a woman who wasn’t up on current events.”
Wrapping Celeste in my arms, the girl held on for dear life. “Well, if nothing else,” she quipped, “now I know who’s running the country.”
I waited until Celeste fell off to sleep before picking my way three doors down. “She came looking for me,” Joel insisted.
“Celeste… she’s clueless… still hasn’t figured out who you are.”
Joel shrugged. “There’s a vote at the United Nations tomorrow morning. The Palestinians want recognition for statehood but the Israelis and the American delegation are adamantly opposed. I’m the only one in my family who supports the measure.”
“Yes, it’s been all over the news,” I replied. A familiar, well-thumbed paperback lay on the floor next to the single bed. “The world leaders need to learn a thing or two about I-Thou or the UN resolution won’t amount to diddlysquat.”
Joel nodded his head but had nothing more to say on either topic. Five minutes passed in total silence. He seemed perfectly at home in both parallel universes. The religious Jew, who read Martin Buber and half-heartedly fondled Celeste, was reinventing himself, morphing into some yet-to-be-determined, hybrid species. Finally, Joel cracked a convoluted smile. “There’s a foreign film playing at the cinema in town, and I was wondering if you might…”