We park the car on the side street. The starry sky is lit up by a big white moon. Across the street is a salon attached to a house. Hand painted on the plaster facade is GUYS AND DOLLS and I admire the shape of the letters. Car doors slam. Chatter. Casseroles and Jell-O molds. My family and I walk in formation to the synagogue. High heels on old cracked sidewalk. It's Friday night and it's also Chanukah. I am wearing patent leather shoes, shiny and black, white opaque tights and a new dress. The air smells like pipe tobacco and wet leaves. Our synagogue is a house. Just an ordinary white house on an ordinary street in a small midwestern town. We climb up the stairs and greet others and the warm light spills from the doorway. The neon blue Star of David shines in the front window, telling us apart. I am not paying attention. I am too young to notice the glass bottles that have been thrown at it. We gather inside where it's warm and we take our food to the kitchen in the back, past all the folding chairs in the center of the big room. Prayer books and song books under each seat. Once our casseroles are in the oven to stay warm and everyone has hung up their coats on the back wall, we settle into our spots. The same spots as most every Friday we are here. There are a few cushioned chairs in the front row. That is where Aaron and Hassie sit. I often sit behind Hassie and notice how her body spills out from her vinyl chair. Her elbows melt over the steel arms like bread dough. I stare at the way her feet fit inside her shoes. Her brown nylons and her polyester skirt well past her knees. She has bottle thick eyeglasses. Aaron and her both have heavy eyelids like my great grandparents and Aaron's lips are big and he sometimes spits when he talks. He calls me Natasha and tells me that would be my name in Russian.
Soon the service will begin and our voices become a whisper. It smells of spices, musk, cigarettes, hairspray and mildew. I will likely fall asleep on my mother's lap. But there is a lot of standing and sitting and standing and sitting, so I don't get to dream. I want it to be over so that we can stuff our bellies with noodle kugels, potato latkes with applesauce, gefilte fish with pink horseradish and orange Jell-O with canned fruit floating inside. I will excuse myself to go to the bathroom. It's cold in there and cavernous. Big and open. The bathtub sits thick and heavy with a piece of plywood over the top. When I sit on the toilet my shiny shoes don't touch the ground. I am confused about the bathtub. I haven't quite yet figured out that this is a house. That people used to live here before people threw glass bottles at the star in the window.
My classmates on the playground at school have asked me if I had horns, so I know that people think we are bad, like the devil. So I stay small when I am here, I do not want to be asked that question again. It's almost Christmas and in music class our teacher will have us sing the dreidel song and I hate it. I know she is only doing it because of me. I refuse to learn any of the songs or read any of the prayers. From here on out, I learn how to listen for the hate in people's speech and I stay quiet.
I don't yet know that Aaron and Hassie's daughter lives in a nursing home. I do not know what it's like for James and Carl to live as gay men in this town that throws glass at our star. I do not yet know my uncle will die at age 40 of colon cancer. It is 1985 and people are talking about The Bears and arguing over New Coke. People are dying of AIDS and starving in Africa. Madonna wears giant cross earrings and I admire my friends who purchase them from Claires. I become hyper aware of the Christian world we live in, the calendar, the holidays, and I just want to blend in.
The service is over and the tables are set up. I fill my paper plate with all the carbohydrates and sit next to my uncle who will tease me and make me laugh.
The house sold in 2008 and people live there again. The bathtub now serves its purpose. I wonder if, on rainy days, you can smell the faint smell of kugel and pipe tobacco. I wonder if they have any idea. I wonder if they have hate in their speech. I wonder a lot of things.