Almost a week after Yom Kippur, I think about my relationship with the holiday, with my sins, with my guilt, and wonder if atonement is enough.
I started fasting on Yom Kippur when I turned 13, shortly after my Bar Mitzvah, and stopped my first year of college. It had gotten to a point where the ritual, although beautiful in some respects—as a cleanse, as a meditation, as an opportunity to get to know the parts of the body we rarely pay much attention to—often felt more like self-flagellation. The image of Paul Bettany in the Da Vinci Code film— skin painted white, eyes heavy and blood red, kneeling in a sparse room inflicting lash after lash upon his back…Yom Kippur became this. It became guilt, a punishment, and an occasion to offer up what felt to me like disingenuous remorse for sins past—sins that would be made tomorrow, early in the morning, before the coffee cools.
It had been a series of difficult mornings, and although I was grateful that the nights were easier after a challenging summer, getting up still proved to be a task. Even with the weather beginning to change, I’d wake up in a pool of sweat, possessed by a kind of anxiety that felt unfair to have before I was fully conscious of myself or any conception of anxiety. I often think this is the difference between those who have a disordered relationship with anxiety and those who do not. It’s a real problem when it’s in you all the time.
Taking the advice of a specialist who was convinced that the sooner I could cut off the anxiety the easier the rest of my day would be, I created a ritual that began with convincing myself of ten things I had to look forward to in the day. Anything from lunch with a friend, a bath I would take later that evening, the black sweater I’d wear to class. Mundane things made spectacular. Then I would breathe, making sure my exhales were twice as long as my inhales. I would do this until I felt good enough to get up, walk to the bathroom, and look in the mirror. This was part of it too. I had to see myself to ground myself. I had to say, “You are actually not a collection of dangerous thoughts but a full being with a physical form. Your feet are touching the floor. Your scruff looks good today.” When I would laugh or smile, I had to see myself laughing or smiling.
Yom Kippur morning was a particularly upsetting one. It had nothing to do with the holiday itself but the dream I had that night. It was a sex dream with someone I should not have been having sex dreams about. He called my teeth a work of art and asked if he could chisel the edges to make them completely even. He was naked and holding a blade. Dreams have a way of marking a day, and I woke up on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar feeling ridiculously horny.
I generally find my libido to be mostly unextraordinary, and as a result of this I am inclined to mistrust the few times where I have an intense desire for sex. The things I feel to extremes are not necessarily about that thing but often a product of another desire.
My sophomore year of college I was rejected by this guy I had feelings for; a guy who perhaps inadvertently, perhaps with intent, had me feeling like my sexual inexperience was a roadblock, a factor that made a romantic relationship between us improbable. I see this as tremendously stupid now. But at the time, it was the kind of devastating that made me go up to my then roommate and say, “Hey, I feel like shit. We should do something reckless tonight.”
So we did. We drank a lot, more than we usually drink. We snorted some things, even though neither of us had ever snorted things. At around 5 AM I opened up a sex app, which I had on my phone only because I had recently fallen into a routine of messaging strangers, letting them flatter me about something or other. Then I would block them when they asked if I wanted to come over or get a drink or smoke pot or—most crudely but often most respectably—if I was horny and just wanted to fuck. It was safe, undoubtedly annoying to the block-ees, but pretty inoffensive.
That early morning I did not want to fuck, was probably incapable of fucking, but found a guy who disarmed me with photos of him with his dog, a cute mutt. The man was about ten years older than me, lived just a few blocks away, and was chatting with me in a way that seemed innocuous enough. I am not the kind of person who enjoys sex without any form of established intimacy or communication. Yet suddenly, I was consumed by this intense yearning. It now feels incredibly misguided in a way so linear, so obvious, that I feel embarrassed at how oblivious I was to it all: I was rejected for my innocence and now wanted to be everything but.
He opened the door and—aftershave. That was all I could think about. It is all I remember. Not a name, not even a clear face. He was balding; holding two beers, but all I could think about was how overwhelming his aftershave was. There was also no fucking dog. I refused the beer, not wanting to risk losing grasp of the illusion of sobriety I had masterfully set up for this stranger, and walked into his tiny East Village studio.
We went straight for the bed, and by that point I already knew I didn’t want to be there, that nothing about the experience I was about to have would be exciting or satisfying or liberating. So I shut down. I became this sort of automaton, performing everything to the best of my ability but with no feeling or investment. He kissed and I kissed back. He went down on me and I did the same. It was not great, but I figured it was a rite of passage to have bad sex, to have sex with someone you shouldn’t have had sex with. It was something I could forget about. There was also a mild pride in my ability to do this, to detach when everything about me usually screams “here to stay forever.” I could have casual sex, hate it, and move on.
After a while of messing around, he suddenly held my wrists back and looked at me with an intense desire that piqued my interest if only because it was a divergence from how passive things had been going. Despite my repulsion of this dude and his aftershave and his ghost dog, it was nice to be looked at hungrily.
“I’m going to fuck you, little boy,” he said. I knew of the game, had seen enough porn to know of the power dynamic he was trying to set up, but I was not interested, had not agreed to any of it. I told him no, laughing it off, but he started rubbing himself against me, believing that I was onboard with his teasing. “Come on, little boy. Open up.” I repeated no several times then, and he didn’t budge for what felt like more time than had probably passed. He then released me, unconcerned, and we resumed doing what we had been doing. Ultimately he finished, I feigned too drunk to finish, and I left. I left with him asking for my number, in which I provided him with a fake, and shivering after he swore that we’d have plenty of other good times together. The last thing he said to me came out as a promise. He was going to fuck me, soon.
It took me a few months to think about that night, in full, to realize the incredible beauty of the nervous system and how it responds to threats—perceived and real. I may have been powerless for no more than ten seconds but it was enough to feel a pit in my stomach, for alarms to go off. A microsecond of not feeling in control, of feeling like someone could make you into something else, could destroy you, is enough. I felt ashamed and guilty and stupid.
I had just finished showering when I received a text message from a former co-worker, also several years older than me. He was in town for the week from Los Angeles and wanted to grab a coffee, but I knew he wanted more than caffeine and conversation. We had this back and forth thing, for a while, heavy flirting birthed out of the unethical. He was older, technically my superior, and for a while we played out these roles, entirely online—the boss and his younger employee. But he wanted to meet, today, on Yom Kippur. After catching up, he wanted to go to a nearby luxury hotel that had large, public bathrooms where we could mess around.
I knew I did not want to do this but I also knew I wanted to replace one set of preoccupations with another. The teeth. The chisel. A fantasy about my parents and his parents grabbing dinner, getting along, my mother whispering into my ear. “I’ve never seen you as happy.”
There was one year, when I was still in high school, where I woke up just a little dizzy on Yom Kippur day and convinced my parents that I was too weak to go to morning services. I still wanted to fast, but I wanted to stay in bed, rest; connect with God from the comforts of my bedroom. They budged and after they had left, I got up, took a long hot shower, and got right back into bed wearing nothing but a towel around my waist. I was just going to watch TV and read a little bit, but the solitude reminded me of a morning when I was four or five, a faint moment that lingers in part because it remains one my purest and holiest memories.
I am up early. My parents, still married, although maybe not happily, are asleep. I walk to our playroom, aware that our wooden floors creak, that I must walk on my toes. I do not want to wake my parents. I walk past our kitchen. In this memory, our house is filled with so much natural light. I don’t remember the house exactly, but it feels right to fill this scene with light, sharp lines penetrating our windows, revealing dust particles floating over the floors. I sit on our playroom floor, take out some toys, and begin to play. It is quiet but pleasant. Suddenly I hear a deep male voice, a baritone, whisper my name. I look around for my father but he’s still asleep. I instinctively know the voice came from outside and look out to our backyard, to the inflatable kiddie pool, the flowers my dad planted. It came from them, I’m sure. It came from the flowers, the ones with little green buds that, when you squeeze them, turn inside out, releasing a clear liquid and seeds.
I thought about this for a while, how sacred it all felt. And although at 16 or 17, Yom Kippur had been in a phase of my life that was about questioning and rejecting everything I had been taught, this was real and special and as warm as anything.
We met at a nearby Starbucks at around noon, and a part of me didn’t want to order anything because I already had a nervous stomach, and had not eaten since the day before. I was, technically, fasting. We talked for a bit but I could tell his mind was elsewhere. Mine was too. Ultimately we went to the hotel, to a private stall, and he began eating my face. I knew, as soon as I entered the room, before he grossly and inexpertly put his mouth over mine, it wasn’t what I wanted. I once again shut down, put on a show; I let him do whatever he wanted to me. When he finished on my face, he was proud he got some onto my clothes. I walked home marked in this way. I also realized I had swallowed some of it. I had not completed the fast.
I spent the holiest day of the Jewish calendar blowing someone I didn’t really like in a bathroom stall. My name would not be inscribed in the Book of Life. I had not repented. I had not apologized for my sins, and even if I did, I was not prepared to start the New Year fresh and free. This dwelled on me for some time. It first appeared to me as comedy, haven broken so many laws and committed so many crimes against God: gayness, breaking the fast, avoiding prayer, having sex out of wedlock, having sex out of reproductive necessity. I was overwhelmed by all that I committed against others but mostly all that I had done, and continue to do, to myself. I felt guilty and ashamed and stupid.
Eventually I felt less of these feelings; they were not replaced by anything else, were not rationalized into nonexistence, but simply dulled with time. I look back at last year with contempt, and despite being a non-observant Jew; I am still plagued by a fear that I have committed the ultimate form of disrespect. I did not atone. I had sinned and sinned again. I had committed self-harm, and had committed self-harm again.
A part of me will always feel this way, burdened by mistakes, unable to move forward, unable to sit down—famished—and reflect. I can’t do Yom Kippur justice. I can’t be sorry in a way that will suit my family, my religion, or the God I was raised to believe in. My apologies to myself unfortunately don’t do much. Often they just magnify the guilt, invite awareness that human behavior cyclical: I’ll constantly put myself in places I shouldn’t put myself in. People will get hurt. I will get hurt.
But another part of me thinks of the flowers, and the heat, and the safety of my childhood home and its floors, and the warmth I have to come to realize I cultivated from within. I think of it as a ball of hot, divine air, spinning like a skater on ice somewhere between my heart and belly. That is what I focus on, what I try to hold close and reflect upon. Hearing that voice is the most sacred, the most sustainable, the most enduring. To again feel that warmth is the most honest way to celebrate a year gone by, a year full of regrets and longing and misplaced desire and the millions of other things that are and always bound to go wrong.