It's a Long Story, It's a Harrowing Yet Uplifting Jewish Story, It's Based on a True Story
by Thomas Israel Hopkins
Unless I’m wrong—which I very well might be—that morning in August 1990 was the closest Jackie and I ever got to marriage. We were sleeping on an old futon crammed into the capped flatbed of my father’s F-150. Her sleeping bag had fallen open. So had mine. Jackie rolled over toward me. It might have been an accident—or maybe she was dreaming of Carl, and her dreaming self thought my body was his body. Either way, her mouth was one inch from my neck. Her body was touching mine, just slightly. We were lying close, lying still, breathing. I woke to the wind of her breath moving slowly across the surface of my jaw.
We were camped in the parking lot of the Stardust casino. The Eastern sky was turning pink. I lay still for as long as I could. Her breath was slow and warm. My neck glowed with life.
I wanted to kiss her. At that moment, in the cool summer Las Vegas morning, I wanted very badly to kiss her. But Jackie and I were such old friends, we were like brother and sister. We’d gone sledding every weekend of every winter since as far back as the Camp David Accords. And anyway, I reminded myself, Carl, don’t forget Carl—I was taking her to Carl.
When she startled awake, I pretended I was still sleeping. I feigned those same deep breaths that had only moments before been causing me such heartache.
My wife asks me what we were doing on a futon in the back of a truck in Las Vegas. It’s a long story, I tell her. Jackie needed to move from Saratoga to San Diego for her boyfriend. Carl was active duty. He’d somehow dodged the Gulf War. I didn’t know the details. He and I never exactly got along. And me, I needed to leave Los Angeles. My screenplay—a harrowing yet uplifting Jewish story—had gone nowhere. I was bailing. There was a girl involved, an actress, but I’ll spare you that part. I’d fled home to Saratoga. Now I was heading back across the country with my dad’s truck to load up my things. It wasn’t the most efficient way to go about it, but I was 25, and I had time on my hands, and I loved the feeling of driving across the desert, and gas cost something like a dollar a gallon. And Jackie needed a ride.
I wrote my harrowing-yet-uplifting-Jewish-story screenplay before I became a Jew. I don’t know why. Was it a signpost on my path? Now I make documentaries, like this recent one on poverty among the Orthodox in Monsey, New York. The ones with a dozen kids and almost no income. I do true stories these days. But I miss the based-on-true stories sometimes.
“That’s the story?” my wife asks. Now it’s August 2005. “The closest you got to marriage?” Jackie’s wedding is hours behind us, back in Lake George.
“Closest with her, I mean,” I say. We’re driving home to Brooklyn.
“Nu, not that close.”
I say I agree with her. It was a memory like any memory. Then it became a memory like the ghost of another world, after Jackie’s mother’s secret.
“Jackie’s mother’s secret?”
Earlier today, I explain. At the reception. When Jackie’s mother, Judy, was talking to my father. “Ah well,” she’d said, winking, “she and I had our plans all worked out”—“she” meaning my dead mother—“but when you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”
My God, when you share your plans, becomes a vindictive whirlwind, but nevertheless, Judy’s meaning shook me: what she meant, I realized, was that my mother and Jackie’s mother, years ago, back home in Saratoga, had fantasized about Jackie’s and my wedding day. The alternate universe of my dead mother’s dreams opened up like a chasm; I felt pushed by the invisible hand of what I didn’t know I didn’t know; I tottered on the edge, wondering if I should regret not kissing Jackie that morning, not falling in—but no, the answer, no—because in that universe, my twin girls do not exist. In the Jewish tradition, each person is a whole world; who could wish for an alternate universe missing whole worlds?
I’m still reeling. We pass the Monsey exit. Our girls sleep. My wife sleeps.
I think I understand my dead mother now, just a bit more than I did before. Parenthood means this game we play in our heads, this secret game of endless matchmaking. But parents are afraid. We keep our dream marriages a secret, because we know that if we describe them, if we put them into words, they self-destruct. After today, I can see it; I understand weddings now, just a bit more than I did before. The smiles and tears on the faces of every parent at every wedding—it’s because of the pressure of keeping all those secrets inside. All those bottled-up dreams of imaginary universes! All those unknown unknowns!
I don’t want that other universe, but to see another universe, to really see it, that can shake you. It makes you see, for just a moment, how much you don’t know about even just this one, the one in which I carry my family safely through the night. Palisades Parkway, George Washington Bridge, Manhattan, FDR, almost home. I want two signs, one in English to float above my left shoulder, one in Hebrew over my right, twin highway angels flashing warnings, caveats, before I make any claim of any kind: “Unless I’m wrong—which I very well might be—”
© Thomas Israel Hopkins 2013
Thomas Israel Hopkins lives with his wife and son in Kingston, New York. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in BOMB, Fence, Indiana Review, Cincinnati Review, and One Story, among other places. The manuscript for his short-story collection, The Crypto-Jew¹s Dilemma and Other Conversion Stories, was runner-up in last year¹s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. He has also also written for Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, Tablet, and Poets & Writers. His website istomhop.com.
It's a Long Story, It's a Harrowing Yet Uplifting Jewish Story, It's Based on a True Story was read by Jere Williams for the Secrets & Lies Show on 6th March 2013