Buying a one-way ticket to India at the start of what would undoubtedly be a scorching Indian summer probably wasn’t the most informed decision I could’ve made. I had initially planned to go to India in late June, when monsoon would begin. Monsoon typically isn’t the season when tourists visit India, as the torrential rain is more than just a mild annoyance. During my last two trips to India, both during monsoon season, I’d more than once been trapped in knee-length high water, trying to ignore that I was walking in mixtures of dirt, manure, and Lord knew what else. No, it wasn’t an ideal time to be in India. Sweaty bodies, millions and millions of sweaty bodies all clumped together, pushing and maneuvering around each other as people commuted to work, went to the market, and brought their kids to school. They say that New York City is the city that never sleeps, and that’s true, but India is the country that never sleeps. Someone is always running around doing something, usually inventing something that one would never see here in the U.S. As a New Yorker, New York City still has deep roots in my heart, although I haven’t lived there for several months. New York birthed me and raised me to be the woman that I am, and the woman I am slowly becoming. I am still unknown to myself in my fullness but I sometimes catch glimpses of my true self in the mirror as I apply my concealer and fluff my afro. She’s in there somewhere, but she has yet to make a full-time appearance. I wonder if my true self is scared. She must be, although she’s an incredible actress: first impressions would tell you that she’s a bit anxious, loves the Lord in a broken way, and has a heart to help women and girls around the world.
This desire to change the world seems innate to who I am and whichever jobs I work, I choose because of the ways I can benefit others with my work. Studying the life of Jesus has taught me that while preaching and teaching is valuable, getting in the dirt alongside others is often more helpful than any powerful and emotional sermon could be, and I love sermons. Whether through teaching English to adult immigrants in New York City or planning bilingual reading events for lower-income children of color, my passion for educational equity, literacy, and people of color’s advancement has always been at the forefront. Unfortunately, jobs where one gives of their heart to the world usually don’t pay well enough to sustain a full life. I managed to pay my exorbitant rent in Washington Heights for a few years, as long as I had at least one roommate, but I never had the funds to buy things I had wanted for myself or for others. Any special events happening in town were inaccessible to me, because who pays thirty dollars just to get into an event? That was groceries for a week, at least in my Dominican neighborhood. After a while, with job instability and high roommate turnover, I could not afford my life in New York City. My gracious church helped with one month’s rent, grocery money, and a MetroCard, but they could not help with much more. In truth, I felt guilty for receiving their help. In my mind, I had no excuse for my terrible financial situation. Too proud to work jobs I deemed beneath me, I would only apply to jobs that I deserved, as I had a Cum Laude BA in English. As a personal rule, I’d never work as a receptionist. To me, a Latina receptionist in New York City was too much of a stereotype. Several months passed in this way until merely the thought of continuing a life in New York City seemed completely impossible for me. I fully intended to pack my bags when my lease expired at the end of June and head to India to figure out my life’s direction, as so many young women before me had done. I wanted to finally understand God’s call on my life and discern why India had had a constant tug on my heart for several years.
Things didn’t pan out as well as I had planned. Through a series of health scares and urgent medical appointments in quick succession, I was fired from my part-time, after-school teacher job for missing too many days of work. My boss, also a Christian, had no mercy for me. While she knew in advance that I had had various appointments and tests, she could not give me grace. Without the little money I earned from that position, I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay rent for the following month. I had two weeks to earn a ton of cash or move down to Georgia to live in my father’s house. I begrudgingly chose the latter. Heartbroken and soul-withered, I packed and shipped my humble boxes, donated most of my belongings and mementos, and boarded a plane that would take me to Georgia where I’d wait a couple of undoubtedly painful weeks before flying out to Goa, India.
I’d told all my friends in New York City the year before that I would never go back to Georgia, no matter the situation. The only way I would return is if some terrible family tragedy happened again. For me, Georgia had been such a traumatizing place when I lived there before. Without a driver’s license, I was confined to my father’s house, limited to walking around the neighborhood by myself, watching the days tick by. Weeks passed and I couldn’t find a job. Months came and went with no job leads. Sickness after sickness affected my family. Car accidents interrupted my normal and threatened to take my mother, the one whom I love most. Cancer appeared on my dad’s annual scan and a blood clot threatened to seize his life. A serious infection randomly infested my brother’s leg. With each new loss came a fresh feeling of abandonment by God. Where was He in all of this? How could I be inwardly suffering to this extent from my own mental anguish, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression while simultaneously having my entire world threatened with destruction? I knew that God was good, all the time, but was He good even in this? This wasn’t what I had been promised by the American Evangelical church. They taught me, and the rest of the world, that if you are a “good person”, if you give to the poor, and if you spend enough time reading your Bible and attending church, everything in life will work out in your favor. No one had ever told me to prepare for suffering. In fact, they said that God hated suffering and never let His beloved ones suffer for long. Suffering didn’t even exist anymore because Jesus came to make us champions and to give us everything the devil tried to take from us, right? No one instructed me on how to fight for my faith when everything in the natural world seemed to say that there was no grand plan, at least not for my life, and I would have to find my feet on my own.
So, I fled. I fled from my situation in life and from God. Never once a quitter during my childhood or during my college years, I began to quit anything that had appeared to threaten my peace and safety. Whether that was a graduate school program that wasn’t what I expected or guys who waved red flags high, I didn’t stick around to find out if the graduate program would improve or to see if I had prejudged these guys. I also ran right out of Georgia, vowing to never return, come what may. Although during the darkest year of my life when I endured so much loss I did feel closer to God and could tangibly sense His presence, that didn’t visibly translate into my life.
I’d daily have these intense prayer sessions with God, pour over the open Bible that lay on my lap, highlighting practically every verse, and I’d surround my ears with Christian music. I educated myself on the plight of the world’s persecuted Christians, making a point to pray for a different country every day. I generally prayed for others all of the time. I gave whatever little money I had to those who needed it. But, my position in life remained the same. Unchanged. Ultimately, I was performing all of these actions and rituals partly because I wanted to, but mostly because deep down I believed that if I did these “good things”, then I’d be rewarded in the natural world. When that didn’t happen, I began to lose that fervor and fire I’d always been known for. My hopes were dashed to the pit of the sea. Had God forgotten about me yet again? I began to tell myself that things weren’t predestined for me. I’d have to fight for what I wanted in life and not rely on any supernatural power to move things into position for me. While I saw Him do that for others, it wouldn’t happen for me. I wasn’t one of the chosen ones. This is something I am continually working through one year later. What does it truly mean to worship and love God? What should our lives look like? How do we find genuine fellowship with others, especially in such politically and socially-tense times? I’m not sure I know, but I’m looking for the answers in the life of my Lord and I accept that I’ll never fully know while on Earth.
When I arrived back in New York City after fleeing from Georgia, with no job and nowhere to live, I was strangely hopeful. I had my friends, my degree, my work experience, and some trust in God. A woman from my church had offered to allow me to stay on her couch until I found a place. Things seemed to be alright yet I felt that trust in God diminish as each day brought no change to my circumstances. As employers weren’t calling me offering an interview and as apartments seemed to become more and more expensive, I began to doubt that things would come to fruition for me. The people that I had trusted revealed themselves to be anything but trustworthy. My former roommate had taken over our two-bedroom apartment, which was leased in only my name, and my room was occupied by another girl. The fight for that apartment culminated in cutting ties with one of my best friends.
Through borrowing money from my mother and father, I was able to feed myself. Well, that and only eating tuna, Vienna sausages, and bread tremendously helped. I find it odd when transplants to New York City glamorize living in poverty. It’s not cool or desirable to live off of tinned foods, climb under the subway turnstile, or have a sugar daddy because you can’t make your rent. It’s not a life that anyone truly wants to live. Many of those who come to New York City and live like that are doing it because they can choose to do so; they often have parents back in Ohio or Indiana who can financially support them should things truly fall apart. Those of us who were born and bred in New York do not enjoy this life. None of us want to live like this, yet this type of poverty is handed down to each generation, like Puerto Rican mothers spoon feed rice to their babies. Poverty is not a trend. It’s an unseen shackle that bites at the ankles of people of color every day. We know it’s lurking, trying to ensnare us. We fight against it. We don’t romanticize it.
It was several months before I found a job, and it was only a part-time, after-school position at a Manhattan middle school filled with rambunctious Dominican and Puerto Rican children who bragged about giving oral sex and kissing all the boys. Each day was a struggle and those 12-year olds certainly knew how to break down a teacher’s spirit. They mocked me for not fluently speaking Spanish. They spoke over me every time I opened my mouth. They fought with each other, made a mess of each classroom, and cursed at the other teachers. At this point, I was so exhausted from trying to make my life function in New York City. I didn’t care much about those kids, but a small part of me wanted to. Yet the mere thought of trying to make a difference in their lives and at the school turned my stomach and brought anxiety upon me like a fire heating me from within. I couldn’t bring myself to put any real effort into teaching those lost and insecure little girls and boys because I had mentally and emotionally given up hope.
During those few months before once again leaving New York City for Georgia, I began to see a therapist, a delightfully calm older Jewish woman. We met twice a week, per her recommendation, and I spoke candidly with her on every topic. We discussed my childhood, the abuse that I suffered from, work, friends, and men. Talking about my problems with men interestingly felt like the most complex subject although at that point I’d never been with a man in any capacity. I’d confessed to her that because of pressure from my mother and my church, I wore a purity ring and vowed to not have sex until marriage. I wanted to give my body to only one special someone. As a result of growing up in the church’s modesty culture, which is in bed with rape culture, I’d believed that dating, kissing, and holding hands was wrong. Only in the most serious of relationships could one show affection in any way. Therefore, I’d never kissed a boy, never dated, and remained “pure”, although mentally I was not pure at all. All my long-held zealous convictions almost vanished because of one man who’d behaved like an oversized teenage boy.
I was his ESL teacher for a few months and he was one of my many older, male students. Alex came from Venezuela and was 38 years old, 15 years my senior. We texted for a while and he asked me out countless times, yet I never went through with it because inwardly I sensed that it was not right. Yet, I was still so deeply tempted to fool around with him. My therapist had her own suspicions about why I was so tempted by this old man, this viejo verde. She believed that I had been taught for so long to “guard my flower”, to close my legs, and to preserve my first sexual experience for marriage, that being a virgin became a huge part of my identity. I was always commended for being a virgin; for never having kissed anyone. They told me I was pure, untouched, and holy in God’s sight. How could anyone want to deviate from that? By that logic, kissing and fooling around, or having a sexual experience with someone causes you to immediately become impure. If you have been touched, you have been damaged. Your flower was destroyed. You not only have a flower, but you are the flower. Thus, you have been destroyed. And who would want someone who has been tarnished? As they say, people only buy new, shiny objects. But, why are women in the church considered objects? Why does our worth center itself around our vaginas and what we do with them? Point that out to me in the Bible, because I do not see it there. Ultimately, I’m eternally grateful that I never had sex with Alex. I would’ve given up something that I had always wanted to reserve for someone special, someone who had to earn that part of me with his love and loyalty.
A year after I fled the South, I had unwillingly returned to Georgia before flying to India. I could tolerate this, I told myself, because it was only three weeks before my big trip that would undoubtedly provide my life’s calling and clarity on every question I had ever had about faith, love, and purpose. So, I focused on prepping my trip: packing lists, establishing a prayer team, making connections in India, and tying up loose ends with my somewhat estranged family members. At this point, my parents were freshly divorced after 25 years of marriage, 21 of those years supposedly being void of love or affection. I had always known that my parents had had problems and fought often, but doesn’t every family have problems? I hadn’t known the breadth of my family’s destructive behavior and way of life until I was a preteen. One night, Heather, my best friend from up the street, had invited me for a sleepover. I had been friends with Heather since kindergarten and had often played at her house, but my mind had always been shielded from the truly broken nature of my family and the seemingly much healthier status of Heather’s family. That night, as I lay on the couch watching a movie with Heather, Heather’s father came home from work, took off his work boots, kissed his daughter’s forehead, and asked about her day. They hugged and Heather seemed so happy to see her father come home. I lay on the couch listening to this sweet exchange between a father and daughter and immediately knew that I lacked something profound. Something I deserved. I didn’t even have a piece of this with my own father. With my father, I only had fear, abuse, and anger. I lay there silently crying and turned over, faced the couch, and feigned sleep.
While in Georgia for those three weeks, I reflected on what I almost did with a man I did not respect. I processed what I had experienced in New York City the second time around. I had lost friends, gained new ones, almost lost my virginity, and learned that I could survive off of canned foods pretty well. I had also felt incredibly lonely. I vowed to take that experience of being lonely and use it for my benefit on the ground in India. Naturally there would be times that I would feel alone and then I could draw on my experiences being alone in New York City and feel comforted. I’d figured that since I’d been lonely from birth, loneliness was always going to be a part of my life. I just had to learn to tolerate it. I didn’t understand that there could be levels of loneliness. There’s a type of lonely when your friend is only a text or subway stop away and then there’s the loneliness when you are nine and a half hours ahead, can only get in touch when you have Wi-Fi, and can’t see their face at all. Linguistically and culturally, I was alone for almost all of the two months that I lived in India, save for my one week in Goa. Goa was my first and greatest stop in India and it proved to be a haven for me to sort through my feelings, explore new ones, and become reacquainted with India. Goa is the place I reflect upon with equal parts joy and regret. The first few days in Goa were a test in adjusting to a new climate and time zone. I stayed in a bamboo hut with one ceiling fan, a hard, thin mattress high on a bamboo bed, and a mosquito net because those little blood-suckers wove themselves into the fabric of my little hut.
When my plane touched down in Goa, I instantly became cognizant of the severe lack of tourists. As I walked about the sandy Goan streets, I noticed few open shops and restaurants. Tarps covered many beach restaurants. The only people on the streets were Indian hotel workers, thin, deeply tanned women with tiny bikinis, and Russian men with beer bellies who’d definitely gotten way too much sun. Suffice to say, I stuck out. On my first morning, I woke up sweating, covered in bug-bites, and already felt the climate begin to strip my afro hair of any moisture. Tummy-rumbling and thirsty, I set out in search of breakfast. Five minutes later, sweating, hungrier, and not close to finding food, I thought about going back to my bamboo hut. I could just wait and ask the lady who ran my Airbnb where to find breakfast. Or, I could walk alone on unfamiliar roads for a short while longer, maybe ask a passerby for help, and fill my attention-demanding belly. I decided to press onward, disregarding comfort, because I needed to prove to myself that I could. After a few more minutes, I came across a restaurant called “Sunshine.” It was almost empty save for a Russian couple. I sat myself at an empty table and waited. A young Indian man approached me and smiled, handing me a menu. After a fantastic breakfast there complete with fruit flowers, I knew I’d found my spot.
During my first couple of days in Goa, I developed a little routine. I’d arise early and eat breakfast at Sunshine. Vijay, the owner, was a relatively kind, albeit too flirtatious, Northeast Indian man with a penchant for the Russian language. His menu was in English and Russian. He told me he’d picked up the language through talking with the scores of Russian tourists that visit Goa each year. Incredible. He’d take me around Goa on his scooter, showing me the sights I could not see by only using my two legs. On our second day of sightseeing, he took me to another restaurant that he owned, which was in the busier town area of our part of Goa, Arambol. We sat on the second floor, overlooking the light Goan traffic of motor bikes and trucks. A young Russian couple sat at the table next to us, giving their skin a break from the beaming sun’s rays. Vijay got up to turn on the fan. We sat together with two cups of scorching hot chai on the table before us. I tapped my nails on the side of the glass, then the table, then the arm of my chair, and kept my eyes fixed on the floral pattern on the plastic tablecloth. Vijay asked me for my life’s story and I gave it to him in a succinct, almost unfeeling way.
“My father almost died last year because of a blood clot in his lung. Then my mother began seeing another man. Then my brother had a bone infection in his leg. Then my parents got divorced. While all of this was happening, I had to leave my home in New York City because I had no job and no money. I was studying for a Master’s degree, too. I had to quit that because I had a lot of anxiety and couldn’t go to class without having a panic attack. So, yeah, that’s what happened.”
Vijay nodded, looked down at the floral tablecloth that had captured my attention a few minutes prior, and shook his head in sadness.
“That’s very sad. This is very sad, Gabby.” He locked eyes with me. “That’s why you can’t have a good time in Goa, because you’re so focused on what happened back home and you’re thinking too much about it. You have to stop thinking about it. Think about yourself. Have fun while you’re here. You should have fun.”
He nodded with more energy, squinting his eyes, fully convinced that his advice was sound. It was. He shared what I hadn’t realized before he’d vocalized it for me. Some of the deepest struggles I was experiencing in Goa were better understood and expressed by a complete stranger who had known nothing about me before I’d explained what had recently happened to me and my family.
Suddenly the last two days flashed in my mind. I had spent my time alone, walking on the beach, playing with Indian street dogs, and actively avoiding any other tourists. I reasoned my behavior by thinking about how the other tourists didn’t speak English, so I would have to become adjusted to being alone. But, when Vijay told me about the inner darkness of my soul without truly knowing me, I then understood that my suffering was expressing itself through my face, my tone of voice, and my actions. It seemed almost beyond my control; it pushed itself through the façade of the disinterested, cool, intellectual, and pensive Gabrielle that I had expertly crafted as each trauma had knocked into my life. I could no longer engage in that deception, that self-deception, and I went back to my little bamboo hut, sat on the uncomfortable bed, and cried to God. “God, I don’t even know who I am anymore! Who am I? I don’t even know who You are! How do I come to terms with what You have allowed in my life? How is any of this fair? I just don’t understand anything anymore.” I cried myself exhausted and fitfully slept, swatting at bugs and wiping sweat off of my face throughout the night.
The next day, Vijay took me across state lines into Maharashtra, just so he could show me an ancient fort. As I walked about that fort, climbing on top of rocks, pushing back branches, and finding small hideouts all throughout, I wondered about the lives of those Indians who had fought and died there thousands of years before. Vijay snapped pictures of me as I explored the fort, although I was an unwilling subject for his photography. I began to suspect that he had romantic feelings for me, much to my dismay, because I knew that I’d have to stop riding around India with him. I wanted to see all of India that I could and he was the only one who could take me. We then left the fort, sat on a beach, and he bought me a watermelon juice and Chinese noodles. Purveying the women around us, he asked me if I wore bikinis and wanted to swim with him. I then knew for certain that he liked me and it was an incredible disappointment. I thought that I could ignore it and keep enjoying our outings until the ride home, when I was trapped on the back of his scooter, arms on his shoulders, and he began to ask me various questions about sex. He wanted to know how I liked to have sex and when I explained that I was a virgin, he asked me if anyone had ever kissed me or touched my breasts. I said no and he told me that I should do sexual things because it’s good for you. Alright, well that friendship ended as quickly as it had begun. Ever the opportunist, I didn’t regret the friendship because I had gotten an Indian SIM card, a few meals, and tons of sightseeing done on his dime. That was his punishment for how he spoke to me.
Deciding that I was thoroughly finished with Vijay’s friendship forced me to eat somewhere else for breakfast and I found myself at a hippy-dippy-trippy restaurant/guesthouse/massage and yoga school called Wellness Inn in Ashvem Beach. My best friend street dog, Esperanza, and I had previously eaten breakfast there together. I had ordered Nutella pancakes and I bought her two hardboiled eggs. I’d cut them up and put them on a napkin for her to eat on the ground. Disregarding the fact that she belonged to someone else and was not actually a street dog, as I had learned from Vijay, we went everywhere together anyway. She accompanied me to the beach where we read the Bible together and she defended me from dogs who barked at us. We went into the ocean together, swimming around, and I massaged her head, careful to avoid a large open sore on her ear. According to Vijay, someone had hurt my precious Esperanza. While walking back into town from the beach one morning, I noticed that Esperanza looked thirsty so I screwed the cap off of my water bottle, cupped my hand, and slowly poured the water into my palm for her to drink. She was parched. A group of sweet-looking smiley Indian teenage boys watched me from their scooter and laughed. They were amazed that this foreigner would give her water to an Indian dog on the street, from her own hand. But, Esperanza was no street dog. She was my friend and before I had met anyone in Goa, she was the only one I could talk to.
Then I met Tom.
How we met would be considered a coincidence to most people, but I know that nothing is a coincidence. I suppose I should preface this three-day love story by saying that I’ve always been passionate about the Jewish people and Judaism. The Jewish roots of Christianity fascinate me and when I think about Jesus, Yeshua, in all His Jewishness, I feel that the faith is much richer. Without Judaism, there is no Jesus as we know Him. Understanding Jesus from a Jewish perspective gives me the ability to see a fuller portrait of my King, my Messiah, and my God. I wear a Christian cross and a Jewish Star of David together around my neck, a piece of jewelry which has always begun interesting conversations.
We met at the Wellness Inn where I had just finished breakfast and was about to head out to the beach or to town. I hadn’t yet decided. Suddenly a thin, tan, blonde man with the tiniest swim trunks ever sat down across from me at my table. I was startled and intent on leaving before he plopped himself in front of me.
“Can I sit here?” He asked, already sitting there.
“Sure, you can sit here.”
He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one. I declined.
We began talking and I learned that his name was Eran, he was from Israel and he had come to Goa to learn Ayurvedic massage from some of the best teachers. As we talked, another man arrived. This man was bearded, tall, slender, and had long dark, curly hair pulled back into a little ponytail. As he slipped off his shoes before entering the restaurant, I acknowledged him with a polite smile. He smiled back and glanced up at me twice before sitting away from me and my new breakfast companion. We asked him to come join us and we learned that his name was Tom, he was also from Israel, and he was in Goa simply to volunteer and travel. Like Eran, he also knew how to give massage therapy.
He and I began chatting like one does when one first meets a person. We covered all the basics of our respective countries and what we think about them, our respective ages (he is 31 and I’m 24), and what I think about his English.
“I’m American but I really hate America right now. I hate Donald Trump. We have so many problems in our country. The way they treat black people and immigrants is disgusting. America is only the land of the free for rich, straight, white men.”
Tom’s eyes widened a little. No doubt the Americans he had met before, if he had met any, were highly patriotic. I could not be more the opposite. Tom smiled and nodded. “This is very good. I feel the same way about Israel. There are so many hypocrites there.” He shuddered and shook his head.
“Our countries are best friends, you know.”
“Oh yes, they are. Israel wants to be a little America. They want to do everything that the U.S. does.” He shook his head and cast down his eyes, fidgeting with his hands.
As he sat right next to me, I had ample opportunity to study his face while he spoke. This was one of the first few people I had been able to converse with in Goa. I was thrilled to make tourist friends, so I did my best to appear interesting and intelligent, which is honestly not hard for me, but I had this intensely odd need to impress these two men. I suppose it’s because Americans have a reputation for being idiots, as evidenced by the one that white America elected to the office of President. After chatting for a bit, both Eran and Tom asked me what I thought about the way they each spoke English. It’s a question I’m incredibly accustomed to receiving. I always give the same answer: everyone has different English. There is no one way to speak English. We’re all different and it’s good. If we can understand each other, then that English is good English. Language exists so we can communicate. So, if we communicate well, then that’s all that matters. The standard English that we teach in schools was created by rich, white men and forced upon every cultural group in the world by these same men. It’s just one way of speaking English. Eran and Tom sat back against the colorful cushions and pondered. I noticed that Tom began giving me a few looks every now and then and I knew that what I had said intrigued him.
As we spoke, I played with my Star of David necklace around my neck. Eran noticed and asked me about my necklace. He asked why I wore it and I felt a bit nervous as I explained my reasoning. I hoped that they wouldn’t take offense and think I was appropriating their culture or religion. I feared that they would see my action as making their heritage into a mere novelty. So, I fumbled with the star in my hand, touching the points with my fingertips, and rushed a hurried response, but a response that I had planned in my head for this specific question.
“Well, I’m Christian, but I wear the Star of David because Jesus was Jewish. Not many Christians understand the Jewish roots of our faith or appreciate the Hebrew Scriptures as they do the New Testament. I think it’s important for Christians to know where our faith started, and it started as a new movement within Judaism.”
Eran gave me a gentle nod, seeming satisfied with that response, but not interested in exploring it further. Tom, on the other hand, added his thoughts, which I was strangely hungry for.
“Yes, this makes sense. Jesus was very Jewish. He was from Israel. Wow, I’ve never met a Christian who thinks the way you do.” He leaned back a little and looked at me.
I felt comfortable, accepted, and sure that I didn’t cause any offense. The conversation turned toward deeper religious matters. Before Eran and Tom had sat down with me, I was reading a book about Jesus’ parables. I had left it on the table and Tom asked me about it. He asked if I carried that book around with me and I told him I had just found it at the restaurant, in the little bookcase that lay behind us. I pulled out a volume with a Hebrew title and asked him what it was. He translated it for me and I thought he was fascinating for reading Hebrew, a language which captivates my ear when I hear it. When Tom saw the title of my book, he asked me how to pronounce the word “parable.” I demonstrated it for him and then he asked me what they were, because he had heard of that word but no one had ever explained to him what a parable was. So, I told the parable of the prodigal son. As I told it, I thought, “Wow, I’m telling a Jewish parable by an Israeli man to two Jewish Israeli men in India. This is incredible!” Tom intently listened and Eran looked intensely perplexed. After finishing the parable, Eran confessed that he didn’t understand all of it so Tom translated it in Hebrew for him. Without having me repeat even a miniscule part of the story, he translated it perfectly. Double wow for me. “A Jewish Israeli man is telling the story of the prodigal son in Hebrew to another Jewish Israeli man!” This affected me so deeply because Christians have a terrible history of forcing their faith onto others and demonizing those who do not believe. The Bible’s been called a book of lies and deceit by people of all religions. To many Jewish people, Jesus was, at best, a good teacher with positive morals. Or, He was a good Jewish man who was led astray from the faith. At worst, He’s a madman and a liar who perverted the Jewish faith. As a result, few Jewish people have ever touched a New Testament. I can assume that not many have heard the parables of Jesus and then told others about them in Hebrew. This fascinated me. I’d finally heard Jesus’ words in Hebrew, a language He spoke. It felt complete.
As Tom shared this parable in Hebrew, I looked into his eyes and felt something bubble up inside of me that I hadn’t expected to feel on this trip. To speak truth, I hadn’t felt that inside of me in years. I felt passionate and alive again. I felt immediate attraction to a man. I believe I was firmly interested in Tom from this moment. Gazing into his blue-green eyes, enjoying the way Hebrew sounded on his tongue, inwardly rejoicing that he was inadvertently sharing the Gospel with another Jewish Israeli person, I felt my heart begin to form an attachment. That’s Jane Austen speak for, I started crushing on this guy. Although he and I come from different religious backgrounds, meeting and being drawn to Tom actually seemed to push me closer to God in a way. I wanted him to know Abba God and love Him. Being loved by God has brought so much healing into my life and He is still healing me. Everyone should experience that in life. I felt a strong pull toward Tom and wanted to give him a chance even if it didn’t seem to make sense. Besides, I had been itching to have spiritual conversations with non-Christians for a while, as it had been a few years since my last one, and I became satisfied with this justification of our continuing flirtation.
Eran invited us to come to the beach with him, but the sun had just begun sitting high overhead and I had no intention of suffering from heat stroke. Instead, while Eran went to pay his bill, Tom asked for my number and we made plans to walk to this market about twenty minutes away, which was absolutely my idea. I was sick of the beach and wanted some more human interaction. While devising this plan, I felt deeply comfortable with Tom and I could see that he felt the same with me. We sat quite closely and leaned into each other as we spoke at the restaurant. At last we got up and left the restaurant and Eran behind without any notice. That’s when I knew that he was interested in me. Since he was in India volunteering, he had to check with his boss that it was acceptable for him to leave for the afternoon. He invited me to come with him for that so we made a quick stop at his volunteering location/the hotel where he was staying. While walking through the entrance to his hotel, I remarked that our hotels, well his hotel and my bamboo hut, were separated by only one building. We were neighbors! That struck me as somewhat of a sign; of what I didn’t yet know. He and I sat at a table under a gazebo-type contraption while we waited for his boss to return from running an errand. While waiting, he told me that he had studied music in Israel and he makes music now. I thought that was fascinating! He was a fellow artist. He pulled out his phone and said,
“Hmm…what should I play for you? Maybe…”
He played one of his songs that sounded like electronica and dubstep fusion, not something that I’m normally interested in, but because he was handsome and I felt a connection, I was interested. Besides, he seemed so excited to play his music for me. Me, a woman he had just met two hours prior. It was sweet. He was almost like a little boy, eager to share something he had made and anxious for my thoughts.
“So, did you hear that line?”
“Push the trigger?”
“Well, that’s not correct, is it? I mean, in English, don’t you say ‘pull the trigger’”?
My little ESL teacher heart swelled and I answered, “Yes, that’s technically not correct, but it’s okay! It’s art! And you’re not a native speaker, so it’s totally okay.”
He smiled a little and put away his phone. I shared with him that I was an artist as well; I was a writer. He learned about my blog and the various pieces I’ve written and performed in New York City. He asked for some specifics on my writing.
“Oh, I write about everything. I write a lot about faith, spirituality, race and social issues, and about how the U.S. abuses Puerto Rico, which is where my mother’s family is from.”
His boss arrived then, we got our approval, and we set out for town. We trekked the long, sweaty, twenty minutes through the dusty Goan streets, stopping for a sugarcane juice along the way. We shared that cup and I learned about Tom’s quirks. Tom was highly sensitive to loud noises. He plugged his ears each time a truck came by. For those unfamiliar with India, the trucks are true works of art. They’re painted various distinct colors and often have different patriotic phrases written on their sides. Their most famous, or infamous, aspect is by far their strictly Indian sound. When the truck driver blows the horn, out comes a musical concoction of sounds one couldn’t imagine ever going together. Yet, in India, they do. Tom had to plug his ears about once every five minutes, as there were loads of trucks on the way to town, and each time he’d look down at me apologetically. I never asked why his ears were so sensitive but I wish I had heard that part of his story. Tom asked me more about my family and I mentally paused for a moment. How do I share the story of my family? We’re known for a few things: anger, grudges, abuse, and stubbornness. Every time someone asks me about my family, I have to decide whether or not to share the truth about them. With Tom, I felt that I had nothing to lose by revealing my painful childhood. If he never wanted to see me again, it wouldn’t affect me because we wouldn’t see each other after a few days anyway. After years of stumbling over my words when explaining my father’s abuse, I’d recently decided that I would just tell the truth, my truth. How people perceived it was their decision.
Although we had just met, I felt safe enough to share that part of my story. I nonchalantly told Tom about my dad’s abuse; how I grew up in a home where I couldn’t make a single move without being scrutinized or criticized. How I would come home and find my dad screaming about one thing or another, whether that was the fact that I didn’t clean the kitchen on time or because we were running out of money. When my dad was laid off in 2009, it worsened. He was home every single day, with me, throughout the entire summer. I couldn’t do anything right. If I sat for too long on the couch, he’d yell at me. If I didn’t clean something the way he liked, he’d yell at me. If I finished a box of cereal or a bag of chips, he’d yell at me. My father used to call me words like “bitch”, “evil”, and “burden”. Tom looked at me with concern and pain in his eyes when I shared this part of my story. I confided in Tom that this constant trauma and abuse led me to become a woman prone to anxiety and depression. I was raised from birth to fear my father and it was a traumatic lifestyle that I had been consistently trying to move past, through therapy and with God’s help. Tom lamented that far too many men are abusers. They don’t know how to love women because they’re consumed by society’s expectation of being a hard man. In their eyes, that is the only way to be a man. Tom dissented. He deeply loved women and didn’t hesitate sharing that with me. He declared himself a feminist and even admitted that he’d rather be a woman, but that he found male anatomy far easier.
I laughed and shook my head. Tom was silly, but he was right and strong in his encouragement of me. In fact, Tom was far more appreciative of women than many Christian men I’ve known. Although Jesus Christ is the truest feminist in history, most Christian men are stuck in abusive and archaic ideas of how women should behave and what our role is in life, the family, and the church. As a progressive Christian, I protest. Tom showed me the way feminism looks when a man embraces it and I loved how he shamelessly lived out genuine feminism. Tom surprised me. He didn’t blink for a moment when I shared with him what had happened during my childhood. The last boy I had been on a few dates with froze when I told him about this part of my past. He soon ended all communication with me and deleted me from his social media platforms, a distinctly millennial way of removing someone from your life. But, that’s the thing. He was a boy. Tom, this person intensely listening to my pain, furrowing his brow each time I shared a particularly disturbing detail, was a man. After I finished speaking, Tom was silent for a minute and then looked at me, “This just shows me how incredibly emotionally strong you are.”
My eyes flushed with tears, which I quickly blinked back. I was struck by his kindness and for seeing something inside of me that I thought had died: strength and stability.
“I don’t really feel that strong, but that’s nice of you to say. Thank you.” I looked at my feet.
He went further, “No, you’re strong! To suffer that much and to experience something like that but to still have hope and continue with life,” he shook his head and smiled, “that makes you strong.”
I smiled and looked away, averting his direct, transfixing, warming gaze. Tom’s response to my pain was distinct and respectful. He didn’t ask prying questions, instead he simply received whatever information I gave him, knowing that I’d reveal what I wanted him to know. He also didn’t pity me with words, rather his soft eyes expressed all the empathy he felt for my painful childhood.
Further on the way to town, we passed a small chapel set on a little hill by the side of the road. A delicate yet sturdy cross adorned the chapel’s roof and for a moment, after glimpsing it, I was refreshingly reminded that I was in a heavily Christian-influenced area. Other than the southern state of Kerala, Goa is the only other Indian state that has been this deeply influenced by Christianity. I began to reflect on why I went to India in the first place. I left my life in the U.S. for countless reasons, mostly to run away from my problems, but also because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of Indian girls, all of whom face sexism and discrimination. Many of them suffer insatiable gender-based acts of violence that stunt their growth as women or entirely end their lives, whether by the hands of their abuser or by their own desperately wounded hands. That sight of the lone cross brought to mind just how distant from God I had been feeling, and how desperate I was to get back into a healthy rhythm in my relationship with Him. I looked at the ground for a few seconds, watching my feet traverse the earth underneath, and glanced up at Tom, saying, “Look at that chapel. Doesn’t it look so…” I couldn’t place the word that accurately described my thoughts. How could I sum up this cocktail of feelings that seemed so distinctly me?
“Like a prison?” He offered, smiling a little. I immediately knew that it was a joke, but my reaction was visceral and his comment hurt.
“No! Don’t say that! I mean it looks so peaceful and ancient. Just really solid and firm.”
“Oh, yes it does look like that. It’s beautiful, the architecture. I think this is a Christian area, right?”
I nodded, we kept walking, and I realized that this was only the beginning of what might be an uncomfortable conversation should we ever again veer into the topic of spirituality and religion. Faith is the most important part of my life. Mutual faith is something I’ve always wanted to share with a partner, ever since I was a teenage girl. Yet the desire to know Tom on a deeper level overshadowed that, allowing me the opportunity to know a man that I wouldn’t normally allow myself to be drawn to.
At the beach near the town, we skipped across the hot sand, trying our best to avoid rocks and shells as we headed toward the ocean. I looked around and observed that the Indian women at the beach didn’t show any skin at all. Tom was surprised, but I wasn’t, because this was my third time in India. Most Indian women wear their salwar suits or sarees at the beach. Rarely do they show their legs. There I was in denim shorts, jumping into the Indian ocean with abandon and with a gorgeous Israeli man at my side. On any other Indian beach, we would have been a sight. But because we were in Goa, anything went. Goa is the one place in India where one can literally do anything. Drinking, drugs, sex, and clubbing are wildly popular there. I knew this when I decided to visit Goa, but I also knew that I had no intention of doing any of that. I flew to Goa to just enjoy the beach, the sun, and quiet time before heading to nearby Gujarat to begin teaching at a village school. The thought of teaching in a village felt daunting to me. I’d never been in a village before. If I hated it, if this trip didn’t work the way that I was hoping it would, what would I have left? I’d abandoned the United States with hardly any money in my pocket and nothing in my savings or checking accounts. With my parents recently divorced, I had no real home to go back to. I’d set all my hopes and dreams to rest upon the weak shoulders of this country, India. India is flawed, profoundly and tragically flawed. If I stayed, the possibility that I’d be sexually assaulted would drastically increase. I wouldn’t ever earn as much money as I’d earn in the U.S. I would need consistent male protection, especially at night. Was I ready to give up all my freedom and comfort in order to make a difference here? Would I even be able to make a difference when everything I left behind kept resurfacing to my mind each day? I began to feel so unprepared as I contemplated the task that was set before me: mission work. In preparation, I’d studied my favorite women missionaries like Amy Carmichael and Elisabeth Elliot, but I had no support from the U.S. and I wasn’t partnering with any church in India. I was decidedly on my own. Yet, I’d felt that this was the best way to go about mission work: alone. In my mind, I was super spiritual to flee to India and trust God to take care of the rest. To me, missions work was the highest calling a Christian could have and I had been trying to force it in my life for three years. I came to Goa first to have time away to think and prepare. That’s exactly what I did. But, after a few days of solitude, I was aching for human interaction, for someone I could talk with on an intimate level.
Knowing Indian culture as well as I do, I didn’t openly speak with any Indian man I met in such depth because in their culture, if a woman speaks to a man, she is expressing interest in him, as evidenced by what had happened earlier with Vijay. While planning my Goa trip I’d felt a bit of fear surrounding my stay there. I’d worried that the parties would be wild and that someone would try to rob or rape me on my way home. Cancelling the trip felt like a necessity to avoid this, but my tiny ounce of faith told me to push on and go to Goa. So, I did. Running through the water with Tom, I felt proud of myself for taking a risk and for allowing myself to become acquainted with a man I would ignorantly write off as unsuitable for me if we had met in the U.S. I was raised to have enormously high expectations of men. If they were less than what the church demanded, they weren’t “kings” and were therefore worthless. They needed to be attractive, debt-free, college-educated, wealthy, a virgin, and Christian. I had countless times before brushed by men who didn’t fit that description, but although Tom only matched a few of those qualifications, I still wanted to know him. I was certain that a type of grand cosmic event had taken place. As tired as that sounds, and as anti-romance as I had been leading up to this moment, I suppose everyone really was right. When you meet someone who is right for you, all of your preconceived notions and feelings will change. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon. Our meeting was unlike anything that had ever happened to me before. I didn’t hope to meet anyone romantically while on this trip. After all my life experiences, especially those during the past year, I consistently expected the worst of everything. As surprising as this encounter was, I was hesitant to hope that anything lasting would come of it. Yet, at the same time, I felt like I was already pulled too far inward to escape without a bruise.
“I see you’re thinking.”
Tom smiled a little, his eyes soft toward me, interested in my thoughts. I didn’t want to share them with him. I didn’t want to kill with overthinking whatever this was before it had a chance to truly breathe.
Realizing that I had been ignoring Tom to privately reflect upon the meaning of my life, future, and our connection, I snapped back into the moment. I tried to be more present, more reckless, more open, and more free. So, I told Tom I was just thinking about life and I gave my backpack to him so he could hold it while I went deeper into the ocean. My shirt was white and I feared that dunking my head under the waves would reveal my black bra underneath. Instead, I let the water caress me up to my bra line and waded back to Tom, content in my small display of spontaneity. He laughed and smiled at me like I was this bright thing that had just fallen into his lap, most unexpectedly, but welcomed with joy. He gave me back my backpack and we walked home, attempting to brush off the sand that had stuck itself to our drenched legs, turning into a mud-like consistency.
As a woman with thick thighs, I’m unfortunately acquainted with the traumatizing experience of chafing. I find that little can prevent it and once it comes, it arrives with a vengeance. Walking home, Tom shared stories with me about his work as a massage therapist while my thighs passionately kissed each other. I mentioned to him that I had back problems and he asked me for specifics.
“Well, I have arthritis all throughout my back, I have a bulging disc in my lower back, and I have slight scoliosis. My back always hurts the most in the morning.”
“Of course it does.”
“You know, I had all of these problems for months before actually getting a diagnosis. The doctors didn’t believe me.”
His eyes widened. “They didn’t?!”
“Nope! All of my doctors were white men and they all simply said that my large boobs caused my back pain and nothing more.”
“That’s not true!’ He interjected, shaking his head.
“Yes, and I had to see a black woman doctor to actually get any imaging done on my back. That’s how I learned all about my back problems. Now I only see women doctors. I just don’t trust these men to take me seriously. They don’t take me seriously because I’m young and a woman.”
“Wow. That is ridiculous that they would say that to you. Those back problems can’t be caused by big boobs.”
“Well, that’s what they said. And my doctor said I need massage therapy or physical therapy but I can’t afford either. I’m hoping to get a massage here in India because it’s so inexpensive and they’re famous for them.”
“They are famous for them. But, you know, I could give you a massage. I would love to help you with your back.”
The brakes screeched in my mind. I declined, fearful of what would happen after the massage, but I insisted that I appreciated the offer. Throughout this entire conversation, my thighs kept greeting each other with fervor. I tried to hide this from Tom and I succeeded. If my demeanor changed on the way home, he couldn’t have known why and probably didn’t notice. Each motor bike or scooter I saw, I suggested that we rent it. Every. Single. One. My reasoning? Oh, I’m just tired. It’s been a long day. For some reason, Tom didn’t jump at my suggestion that we spend money on a private ride back to our respective hotels. So instead I just waddled my way back, pulling down my shorts, trying to ease the pain. As we turned a corner and headed down the last long road before our hotels appeared, several Indian men on scooters drove by. The sun was setting. The nightlife was awakening. Keeping my eyes fixed on the road before me, I didn’t pay any mind to those men. Visiting India multiple times before had taught me the art of ignoring men on the street and I was adept at it. Tom, on the other hand, couldn’t stop noticing the other men’s stares.
“Gabrielle, you know, usually when I’m out with my sisters or friends and men stare at them, I feel really protective and upset. I see all of these men looking at you and I just met you today but for some reason, I feel the same way I would with them. Why are they staring at you?”
We both knew the answer to that question but instead of openly saying, “Because I’m beautiful.” I said, “Well, it’s because I’m wearing shorts. Indian women don’t usually wear shorts so that’s why they’re staring.”
Tom snuck a glance at my thighs and said, “You’re right, it’s because of your shorts.”
I detected the flirtatious undertone of his remarks, but was scared to freely flirt back and couldn’t think about anything other than the pain in between my thighs. This chafing would wreck my legs and I was worried about the next few days, considering how I wanted to enjoy Goa and Tom without this pain. We passed a broken-down bicycle with no seat and the thought of stealing it to ride home genuinely seemed like a possible scheme for us, at least to me.
“Okay, Tom, this is what we’re going to do. You go over and distract that guy near the bike and I’ll steal it so I can ride it home.”
Tom looked down at me, laughing, eyes alight, and said that I was funny. I was being entirely serious, but that’s alright.
“Can I see you tomorrow?” He asked with a warm, boyish grin.
“Yes,” I replied, giving a shy smile. Religious differences and age difference aside, I decided then to give myself to whatever this connection became. I knew it most likely wouldn’t last beyond Goa, but it impressed upon me this sense of urgency, purpose, and destiny. That was something I couldn’t ignore, regardless of what separated us in age, belief, and practice. Once home, I took a shower, cleaned the chafing area, and broke open my extensive first aid kit, hoping this injury would promptly heal. I had a feeling that I would see Tom a lot more on this trip and this chafing was not invited to tag along.
The next day, I awoke with eager expectation, something that felt so foreign to me. I wondered if Tom would remember that he had asked me to spend time with him again. I hoped he would, so I made sure to beautify myself to the best of my ability in my minimalistic environment. I popped in my contacts and began rimming my eyes with Indian kajal when he texted me: “Hey, I have to volunteer today but I’m free at night. Would you like to have dinner tonight?”
Like a piglet, I squealed and texted back that I would love to have dinner with him, but when and where? Back to my beauty routine. Knowing that there was a possibility that we might kiss that night, I went to town on my teeth to ensure that everything was ready. I applied concealer to my dark circles and any little redness, hoping to give the illusion of flawless skin. Hesitating about the lipstick I should use, I decided to use none. If I swiped on a red lipstick, although it’s my signature color, it might deter him from kissing me. At least, this is what Seventeen magazine had taught me and that was the only guidance and experience I had to look to. Instead, I opted for a lip balm that made my lips look juicy. While getting ready undoubtedly too many hours beforehand, I felt the excitement that one usually feels before a first date with someone. But, this was no typical date. This wasn’t my first date with a guy, but it was my first date with a man. The boys I had once dated were timid, immature, and without direction. They carried themselves like boys, afraid to be direct and make their feelings known. After a few years of only encountering boys like this, I had almost given up hope that I would find anyone suitable for me. I had the feeling that I would need to date someone in his 30s for him to be mature enough in my eyes and Tom had just crossed that 30 mark the year prior.
Seeing that all my clothes were dirty and sweat-drenched, I decided to spend that day washing them. A rookie mistake. When in India, it’s rare to find a place with a washing machine. My bamboo hut certainly didn’t have that amenity so I asked my host for a bucket, visited a local store to buy some powder detergent, and washed my clothes. There is an art to handwashing clothes and although I’d done it many times before, I still felt like I didn’t quite fully grasp the execution. I soaked my clothes in the detergent-water and then plunged them into the water, moving my arms in a furious up and down motion, as I had seen so many Indian women do before. The next part is something I’m unsure about: rolling them up and smacking them on the wall. Whether or not that action actually helps clean the clothes is unknown to me, but it felt so good to smack something. Throughout my entire life, I’ve been angry, although that anger has lived deep below the surface and has manifested in shyness, sensitivity, and pride. I’ve lived with the knowledge that I was abused, that I had been hurt by my father, then by Indian men on the street, and then by friends. I had so much indignant rage pent up inside of me but had always been taught that giving into that anger is always a sin. We should take everything in stride, turn the other cheek, and be like Jesus. It’s interesting to see how many people forget about the countless insults that Jesus hurled at the Pharisees and how He literally flipped tables and chased people with a whip outside of the synagogue for cheating people out of their money. I digress. Smacking my clothes against the wall felt great and I gave myself to it until I heard a little jingle outside of my door. The blue dress I wore was soaked with water and sweat pooled around my hairline and my upper lip. I pushed back my hair and opened the door expecting to find my host asking me to keep the smacking noises down. Instead, it was Tom. He stood sheepishly to the side, fidgeting with whatever little thing he could find. He chose a straw-like piece of bamboo from my hut and pulled at it.
“Hi.” I said.
He said nothing for a second, and I smiled, enjoying how nervous he was.
“Wow, you look like that when you’re just relaxing at home?”
“Well, I’m washing clothes and this is all I had that was clean.” Take the compliment, Gabrielle.
“Oh, okay. Well, you know I’m only almost right next door so I thought I’d just come over and answer your text in person.”
I laughed at the unabashed innocence and enthusiasm of that. “Okay! So, tell me.”
“Alright, well here’s what I’m thinking. I can pick you up later tonight, maybe around 8:00 or 8:30 and then maybe we can see what’s there on the beach?”
This man always wanted to go to the beach. “Okay! Sounds good.”
“Okay, so I’ll see you tonight.”
He waved and walked back to his hotel. I shut the door and giggled to myself. Tonight was going to be special.
While waiting for Tom to pick me up, the hours uneventfully ticked away. Each passing hour left me unsure if he remembered our date or if he had changed his mind about me. Hopeful, I slipped on a dress I had just purchased from a lady from Karnataka who operated a shop in Goa during tourist season. It had black lace around the hem and little green flowers all over. I swept up one side of my curls and pinned them back with a small white flower clip. As the clock almost struck 9, I told myself that I’d give him fifteen more minutes. If he didn’t come for me by then, I’d go to sleep. Jetlag kept announcing itself every day and I’d done my best to push through it, but by day five, I was exhausted. My mother had always told me to never run after a man so if he had forgotten about our date, I wouldn’t remind him or text him again. Just as I thought through all of the reasons to cancel or ignore him, I heard that familiar jingle of the bell outside my door. I darted to the door after adjusting my bra, checking my makeup, and making sure my mints were in my bag. I opened the door. Tom stood there, a little to the side, once again looking nervous. I was nervous, too. While the day before had just been a chance meeting and we had gotten along well, tonight was a planned encounter. We had liked each other enough to want to see the other again, at night, for dinner, in a very typical date-like way. As I was sleepy and my contacts were drying out, I rubbed my eye a little, hoping not to smudge my kajal. Tom smiled, put his hands on his hips, took a deep breath in that thick, warm air, and declared, “You look like this when you just wake up? How is this possible?” I smirked and replied, “It’s magic.”
He gave me that look that men reserve for women they’re interested in. They lean back a little, smirk, and look at you. I felt naked.
“Ready to go?” He asked. I nodded.
Finding a restaurant that suited us proved to be difficult, but I appreciated how willing he was to compromise and explore different options. We first went to the beach, his idea, and quickly realized that beach restaurants were ridiculously overpriced. While walking back to the street, we were greeted by Indian stray dogs. I mentioned to him that I had made friends with one of these dogs and I’d hoped to see her again. I called her “Esperanza”, “hope” in Spanish. He thought that was sweet. He told me that he loved dogs and in order to earn their trust, he gave them free massages. I observed him loving on these stray pups and felt my glowing heart soften even more toward him. Instead of fearing them or finding them a nuisance, he saw them as canine massage clients and that was endearing. Eventually we found a restaurant that wasn’t too expensive or pretentious. But, he wasn’t hungry. I thought that odd and then remembered that he had his meals taken care of at his hotel, all a part of his volunteering service, and as he would be in Goa for a month, he probably wanted to conserve his money. I, however, intended to eat. So, I ordered an iced tea, something I had never tried in India because of the fear of dirty water, and a chorizo sandwich with fries. The iced tea tasted off, almost fermented, and I had Tom take a sip of it. He agreed. It was weird. Interestingly, we shared a straw, essentially swapping spit, and it didn’t feel disgusting or too soon to do that. As we waited for my food to come out, two small cats leapt up to the bench I sat on. I entertained their presence and fed them tiny pieces of chorizo and french fries. They stayed with me the entire night after that. Loathing the fact that Tom wasn’t eating, I shared my plate with him, giving him half of my sandwich and my fries. In Puerto Rican culture, sharing food is a way that you show your care and love for someone and I would learn the next day that the same belief exists in Israeli culture as well.
Tom asked for more details about where my ancestors are from and I shared the story to the question I’m regularly asked in the U.S. “Well, you know I’m Puerto Rican on my mom’s side. Puerto Rico is a small island in the Caribbean. They speak Spanish there and they can look like me or have any skin tone and hair texture. We just had a hurricane there last September and the U.S. government didn’t do anything to help us, although Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony. Anyway, so my dad is German-American but he doesn’t know anything about German culture. When I was a little girl, my father told me that it was a curse to be German because of the Holocaust.”
His eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yeah. I wish I knew something about German culture other than Mozart, beer, sausage, and pretzels.”
“Yes, Germany is full of beautiful culture! My sister actually lives there. They are more than the Holocaust, of course. It’s not a curse to be German, Gabrielle.” His words dripped with forgiveness of the Germans for what they had done only a lifetime ago.
“Right, so I want to learn about it. You know, when I was in college, people used to call me a Nazi. But they didn’t understand that I would’ve been killed by the Nazis, too. I’m not their idea of the perfect race either.”
“Exactly, you would’ve been killed as well. They’re idiots for calling you that. You’re not a Nazi!”
While talking together, Tom and I dove into touchy subjects for most people, but it didn’t seem like anything was out of line or inappropriate for us. We talked about everything. I loved hearing his stories and he was enraptured by my stories. We enjoyed throwing shade at our respective countries. He was fed up with the hypocrisy of Israel, the military, and its highly Orthodox people. Personally, I was done with America’s love of guns and hatred of people of color and women. I opined that the U.S. loves to exploit people of color and our countries but when the time comes to return the favor and help us, they’re not there. A prime example of this was how the U.S. responded to Hurricane Maria’s aftermath in Puerto Rico and the tragically unnecessary loss of life that followed.
When in the U.S., speaking about these issues is always so daunting unless you speak with a socially-conscious white person or another person of color. The rest of the time, people call you a “crazy liberal” or “race-baiter”, disregarding the valid and factual points you have made because they don’t like your skin color. But with Tom, because he was not American, it was so easy to share my opinions without fear. I told him what really happens behind that shiny façade America loves to wear. He learned about the mass shootings, the police shootings of unarmed black people, mass incarceration, and the Latin immigration crisis. I argued that because only rich, old, white, straight men had all the power in the U.S., we were all suffering. I shared the history of my country, pointing out that it was, again, the rich, white, straight, men’s abuse of people of color that led to so many issues in lower-income communities of color with ramifications still affecting us today. With little experience in these highly esoteric American problems, Tom nodded, asked, “Really?” every so often and eventually joined me a little in berating “the white man”.
We mentally shook hands with each other.
“So, Gabrielle, you talk about white men. I’m white, too, right?” He gently asked the question, challenging me but not intending to offend.
I hadn’t thought of him like this. He, as an Israeli man, had no part in any of the egregious acts of violence my ancestors endured, but he wore the same skin as those who did. He could be considered white, but I suppose that when I think about white people, my mind reverts to slavery and oppressive acts. He was not culpable for that. Besides, he was Israeli. He was Middle Eastern.
“Well, you’re from Israel, so I guess I don’t really think of you as white.”
“You know, my family actually came from Ukraine and Russia.”
“Really! Did they…uh…come after the Holocaust?”
“Yes, they did.”
“And the rest of your family back in Ukraine and Russia. Did they…?”
“Oh, they all died. All of them.”
He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as if this were commonplace. My ancestors were murdered by racist white men centuries ago. His were murdered by racist and anti-Semitic white men just a lifetime ago. You can’t quantify suffering, but this thought gave me pause. His great-grandparents or grandparents must have fled to Israel right after the Holocaust, just when Israel became a country. As hard as it is for me to live with the ramifications of slavery, segregation, and the continuing colonization of Puerto Rico, I can’t imagine how difficult it is to cope with the knowledge that just a few generations ago, you would have been exterminated for being Jewish, for being who you are. He thought I was strong, but that kind of history produces profound strength. I could see that he had it in droves. But, I could also see that his heart was soft. He didn’t serve in the Israeli military, which is generally required, so I wondered what had happened to him to prevent him from serving. Was it religious beliefs? Heavy emotional stress? Tom was funny. He made me laugh each time I saw him, but his quick jokes were often dark. He claimed this was an Israeli thing, and it probably was a part of that culture, but something in his eyes told me that he was tired. He was tired of living in a country where war is constantly threatened. Where it’s common to see soldiers with guns walking around every day. Where you could lose more than one best friend in war. Where you have no choice in whether or not you want to risk your life for your country. Growing up in that type of environment undoubtedly produces stress and his artist’s spirit was heavy. His shoulders had taken multiple beatings, but he threw them back and carried on. An artist’s heart and spirit are malleable. This is not to say that we are weak. We are strong, but our strength lies in our ability to express our emotions, to feel pain, and to transform that pain into art. The courage it takes to create a piece and share it with the world is striking. Not everyone can do that, because it’s not simply something you make, but it’s a part of your soul. If someone criticizes your work, what are they saying about who you are as a person?
Tom’s eyes hovered above my head and around my face. “Your hair type is very common in Israel, Gabrielle. A few years ago, everyone straightened their hair. No one had it curly. But, now everyone lets their hair be curly.”
He glanced over my skin and added, “There are people in Israel with your color. You know, my sister’s skin is even darker than yours.” He sounded excited to find these two comparisons between me and his people. He was not only enjoying looking at me, but he was taking note of my distinctive features and relating them to what was familiar to him. Tom made me feel so warm and beautiful. Everything he said about me, from my hair texture to my skin color was a compliment. He thought I was beautiful and had no fear expressing that, although he did so subtly. Every day he’d glance down at my neck and comment that he loved seeing the cross and the Star of David together like that. He’d remark how nice my necklace rested on my neck. His eyes seemed drawn to it. He had never met anyone who was like me in that regard, a Gentile who was so knowledgeable about Judaism.
“Gabrielle, you might have a little Jewish in you. Do you?”
I was surprised that he asked this and so flattered that he speculated that we came from the same background.
“I don’t know! I might! My father doesn’t know who his father is, so we probably do have some Jewish ancestry somewhere.”
Tom looked into my eyes for a while, let his eyes roam about my face, smiled and said, “I think you do.”
When Tom made these comparisons, I thought it was sweet. While I didn’t look at him and try to fit him into what I was familiar with, Puerto Rican culture, he saw the ways I fit into his normal. I’m sure he appreciated my differences as well and was entranced by my entire person. I enjoyed him for being the Ukrainian-Russian Israeli Jewish man that he was. I appreciated all our differences. This might be because he would relatively seamlessly fit into my world, but I wouldn’t so easily slide into his. Not only was I not Israeli, but I was not Jewish. Tom wasn’t a practicing Jewish man, but I could see that the heritage and culture associated with Judaism in Israel were important to him and to his family. Tom loved talking about his Jewishness. His reasoning for his incredibly sharp sense of humor was his Jewish roots. He clearly loved his Jewish identity and his country, although he would be the first to pick out Judaism’s contradictions and Israel’s flaws. I understood the type of dissonance that occurs when you are part of a group that you love but can simultaneously take an outsider’s position and be able to pinpoint each error in the group’s beliefs or practices. I dislike many practices of modern-day Puerto Rican culture, but I allow myself to love the people behind the culture and openly speak about the need for improvement. It’s painful to be able to do this; most people can’t. Instead of blindly supporting our own group, we can choose which aspects of our group we do stand by while also petitioning for positive change.
Should Tom and I continue exploring this spark between us, should that spark develop into a full-fledged relationship, my Gentile heritage would possibly be a point of contention. It seemed like he was scrambling to find commonalities between us because he sensed that whatever was happening between us didn’t occur every day and he wanted to savor it.
After dinner, Tom invited me to sit with him outside at his hotel. Once there, we reclined on long, black chairs next to the hotel’s pool and we looked at the moon. The air felt cool and clear. Thankfully it wasn’t monsoon season yet, so we had little humidity to deal with. Laying back with him, looking at the trees protect us overhead with their branches, watching the stars glitter and glow, listening to the sound of the rushing pool water, we sat in silence for a while, just enjoying each other’s company. As the minutes passed, the air grew breezy and I curled up a little to keep myself warm, although with Tom I already felt warm. As cold as it became, I didn’t want to end this moment. Inwardly I recognized the temporary status of our unspoken relationship. I was eager to extract each possible minute from each of our days and conserve it for us. The leaves on the trees swayed back and forth. The hotel’s strangely large number of puppies whined in unison, creating an odd cacophony all their own. As I lay there with Tom, I began to reflect on what continued to unfold between us, and realized that it was beginning to cross into deeper territory. I’m not one to typically believe that one can love another so quickly, but it certainly can begin quickly, especially when two people are wrapped in conversation with each other every day with nothing to distract themselves from being together.
When I was a teenage girl, I read Jane Austen’s entire repertoire throughout high school and while the social commentary mostly escaped my notice, what truly impacted me was the way she wrote about love. Austen taught me that first impressions are not always correct, that love can grow between two seemingly incompatible people, and that basing our decisions on emotions alone isn’t the sensible thing to do. She taught me that love can happen at any age, to anyone. Love doesn’t always appear the same way across generations and social classes. Dramatic, sweeping love stories aren’t necessarily what keep someone’s soul warm at night. When those overpowering emotions dissipate, what’s left in their wake is the stuff of love: commitment, shared purpose, and soft care for each other. Laying there with Tom next to me, his eyes fixed on the wide expanse above us, thinking about something only he and God were privy to, I began to see that this connection that existed between us was not so much the passionate, can’t-live-without-you type. We had lived without each other before and we would undoubtedly continue on without each other. No, our minds felt deeply intertwined, so much so that we could communicate with just a glance or a facial expression. In him, I’d finally found my intellectual equal, someone who could challenge me without offense. I found someone who could understand me at a level that I thought only I could. Tom was a true man of the world; he had experienced things I’d never even seen. His stories and sense of humor captivated me. In him, I saw beyond his smiles and jokes. My eyes cut through to the source of Tom’s darkness and pain that he so cleverly mixed with wit and humor. I saw a hurting soul, a soul longing for respite after decades of wandering alone, continually reaching out for another to recognize him for who he was. I saw him. He saw me. In each other, we recognized a fellow soul.
We began to talk. I shared a bit about my dad’s brush with death the year prior and how his health scare brought the fear of sickness and death into my own life. When I shared with him about my hypochondria, he unexpectedly helped me by laughing with me about it. That surprisingly helped. I began to feel not so unhinged or sad about my struggles. I told him, “You know, sometimes I walk around afraid I’m going to drop dead of a heart attack. If I get a pain in my arm, I think I’m going to die in that moment. I think, ‘Oh no, it’s happening. This is it.’ Isn’t that ridiculous?”
He smiled and said, “That’s very funny. That’s great.”
I felt free to go on: “Sometimes it’s a heart attack, other times it’s a brain tumor or a stroke. It depends on the day.”
We laughed together about it and for the first time since dealing with hypochondria, I didn’t feel alone. The whole thing didn’t seem so overwhelming.
He was silent for a moment and chuckled before saying, “Yes, you know, anything can happen anytime. Right now, some bats in the trees could come and attack us.”
I burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea and responded with “Mmmm mm!” To me and to everyone I know, that sound means “No way!” To Tom, it was hilarious. As one of the signature sounds I make whenever I see something that looks scary or wrong, Tom had a plethora of opportunities to enjoy and imitate it.
His head snapped in my direction and he chuckled a little.
“Gabrielle, you’re so interesting. You have a very eclectic sense of humor. Sometimes you have this explosive laughter about silly things and other times you just have a small smile. Very interesting…”
“Mmmm mmm mm!” I answered, my voice rising and falling.
He stared into the distance for a second and said, “Okay, that was ‘I don’t know.’” I had completely forgotten that Tom’s native tongue was Hebrew and that me making noises with my mouth closed doesn’t actually communicate the words I’m thinking. Yet somehow, Tom knew.
We continued laughing, a little high on life and the hour: it was past midnight and everything is always more intense after the clock strikes twelve. He reached his hand in my direction, gesturing as he laughed and spoke, and accidentally brushed my arm. Immediately, he withdrew his arms and said, “Oh no! I hit you! I’m a misogynist! No!” I knew he wasn’t joking about domestic violence. He genuinely felt badly for unintentionally tapping my arm in that small way. It was adorable and I assured him that it was okay and he was most definitely not a misogynist. He smiled, leaned his head back on the pool-side chairs we had overtaken, and turned his face toward me. His blue-green eyes locked with mine and he said, “Do you want to go swimming?”
In this moment, two things instantaneously passed through my mind:
- If we were to get into that pool together, things would become heated. Tom may try to kiss me, and I was nervous.
- I don’t think that getting chafing thighs wet is beneficial to the healing process.
I attempted to appear as if I didn’t want to get in trouble. Because I wasn’t a hotel guest, should anyone hear us, he would get in trouble as well. But, I did want to spend more time with him and physically, I wanted to get closer to him.
“I don’t know…do you?” I felt my inexperience surface and I tried to mask it.
He stared directly into my eyes and frankly admitted, “Yes, I do!”
“Uh I don’t know….I don’t want to get into trouble.”
“That’s okay, we don’t have to.” He smiled reassuringly and gave me a slight head nod.
We lay there for a little while longer, listening to the sounds of the night, and resisting the urge to cross that physical boundary that threatened to explode with tension. I wanted him, romantically and physically. I was amazed at how quickly my body wanted to connect with his. I was immediately attracted to him, but I’d been attracted to men before. I’d never wanted to become as physically close to a man as I had with Tom. But, because I was inexperienced, I had hoped that he would take the lead and initiate a handhold, a hug, a kiss, something. But, he didn’t. Tom respected my body to the highest level. Tom wasn’t a normal man in the sense that he wasn’t typical. He was distinct and respected me, which so many men don’t want to do. Tom never wanted me to feel uncomfortable and it was beautiful. As the hours wore on and the conversation slowed, I sensed the tension thickening between us. We were so close to his bedroom. Sensing the same tension, Tom cleared his throat, fidgeted with his hands, and looked at me, saying “I have to volunteer really early tomorrow and it’s late. You probably want to sleep. So, I’ll take you back, okay?”
I nodded my assent but sincerely wished that he would’ve grabbed my face and kissed me instead.
He walked me the far too short two-minute walk home and watched me as I unlocked the gate and let myself into my bamboo hut. I threw myself on my stiff bed, ignoring the insects and the heat, feeling absolutely electrified by a supernatural power.
The next morning, the sun broke through the slits in the bamboo walls and roof. I awoke knowing that this would be my last full day with Tom and that the conversation, the connection, and the empathy that we shared the night before had significantly altered everything. No longer could I pretend that we didn’t have a romantic, mental, and spiritual connection, which I had been trying to trick myself into believing didn’t exist. It would have been much easier to imagine that these vibes were entirely a product of my brain, a piece of fiction I had created to make my Goan days a little less lonely. After the night that we had just spent together, after sharing so much about our innermost fears and our respective pasts, things seemed more intense. The unspoken attraction and connection between us screamed to be acknowledged as this last day and night lay bare before it. I had somewhat been denying what was happening in my own heart and in Tom’s because this had never happened to me before. Any crush I ever had, save for one guy, had been on a guy that I didn’t know that well. Most of my fantasies were simply that: fantasies. There was never any genuine friendship there. With Tom, I could see that a warm friendship was blooming but it wasn’t being overshadowed by extravagant romantic actions. The friendship took precedence and the romance would slowly grow like a flower alongside it, rather than as a weed that would suffocate our foundation of friendship.
For our excursions that day, I donned a long black t-shirt and loose wide-leg flowy pants. I felt comfortable enough with Tom to not feel pressured to coordinate the perfect outfit that would highlight my curves, hide my rolls, and exude just the right amount of sexy. Without any real plan in sight, I told Tom that I wanted ice cream. We went to a small store around the corner from my bamboo hut and stocked up on Indian sodas, ice cream, Maggi noodles, and cookies. Next to the cashier, there was a small end-cap display of various Goa souvenirs. I had gone to this store before and perused these souvenirs, but had yet to buy one. I couldn’t decide between a fridge magnet, a shell keychain, or other kitschy shell tchotchkes. Holding one peach-colored shell keychain with “GOA” written on it in black letters up to Tom, I happily announced, “Look, Tom! Isn’t this nice?”
“Yes, it is. Do you know that if you put the shell to your ear, you can hear the cries of the child who made it?” He quipped.
I was not expecting him to finish that question in that way. I laughed at his joke but grimaced thinking about slave labor and human trafficking.
“Oh no, do you really think a child made this?”
Tom smiled and said, “Of course!” His nonchalant attitude about it made me wonder what he’d been exposed to. What had he seen that had ignited cynicism inside of him?
I put it back and we hit the road with my ice cream and self-respect in tow.
Tom had mentioned for the past two days that he really wanted to try an Indian mango. We passed a fruit stand on our walk and I grabbed his arm saying, “Tom, you have to get a mango! It’s our last chance. Let’s get one.”
He smiled and we bought a mango. Walking for a bit, awkwardly holding the mango in his hand, he asked me if I knew how to open it. I then remembered that I only knew how to open a mango with a knife, stable surface, and a cutting board. I said I knew how anyway.
“All you need is nails! Do you have nails?”
“I’m not sure,” he said.
“Let me see.” I grabbed his hand and slowly ran my finger over his thumb nail. Everything seemed to stand still for a moment when our hands touched. I was the one who initiated the first physical contact between us. As transparent as we had been with our souls, we still hadn’t touched at all. At this point, it seemed like Tom was not only respecting my body, but that he was afraid to touch me. What would happen after he touched me? Would we know how to stop? Why would we stop? The temptation to play with those boundaries was strong and felt like the most enticing experience of my life. I began to peel the mango, discarding each piece of skin. Because I wasn’t slicing it, there was no real mango on the skin so it seemed worthless in my eyes. After throwing each piece of skin away for a few seconds, Tom said, “Wait!” Taking the skin in his hand, he began to suck on it, trying to get some mango from it. He threw it on the ground and said, “You’re right, there’s nothing on there.” After peeling the mango, we passed it between each other, taking turns sucking the fruit off the pit. He took a few hits of its sweet goodness and gave the rest to me to finish. Tom always let me finish whatever drink or snack we shared. He was in love with the beach, so I agreed to walk on the sand with him as the sun began to set. The beach presented itself as a perpetual hangout hub for Indians, Russians, and one Puerto Rican-German-American-Ukrainian-Russian-Israeli couple. Leaving our shoes on a rock that we would cast a glance at every few minutes, we waded into the water and I pulled up my pants like I was wading through monsoon waters.
We played in the water for a bit and I told him that I wanted to go in all the way, but I couldn’t. “Remember last night when you wanted to go swimming in the pool?” He nodded, smiling. “Well, I wanted to but when we walked home Saturday night, my thighs chafed.” He grimaced and pitied me.
“Oh no! That’s terrible. That happens a lot in the Israeli military.”
“Yes, it’s awful and painful. But, you probably don’t have to deal with it because you’re…” I searched for the best word. “more on the skinny side.” He laughed, pointed at me, and said, “Hey, that’s racist!” I laughed with him and couldn’t believe I had met another person who used that word the way I always did in college. One of my signature catchphrases in college was saying, “That’s racist!” to things that were decidedly not racist.
“So, how’s the chafing now?” He made a back-and-forth motion with his hands, and used the Hebrew word for chafing. I told him that it was getting better but I was trying my best to not get it wet.
Just then, a lobster-red Russian man with a protruding stomach walked by on the beach and Tom and I exchanged glances.
“They stay in the sun all day and they get so burned. Don’t they feel the pain? Why do they do this?” I exclaimed.
“I have no idea. They must feel it, but they just stay in the sun.”
I shook my head and admitted to Tom that I had been feeling a bit off about Russia ever since news broke that Russia interfered in the 2016 American Presidential election. How were our countries going to relate now?
Tom understood. Having grown up in Israel, he was well-acquainted with terror attacks, militarism, and problems in the government. He was starting to come to terms with what it meant to love your country and simultaneously disagree with the way it’s run. I understood. Tom joked about all of it and for the first time in a long time, I laughed about the state of the union. Shaking my head, I looked at Tom and told him that he brought out my dark side. He looked concerned and said, “Oh no.”
“Don’t worry about it! It’s okay! Just a joke.”
“Aw, okay.” He smiled a little, traces of guilt for corrupting me still in his eyes. He knew his darkness best and it appeared as if the mere thought of his darkness tainting me brought him fear. I changed the subject.
“Hey, I’m hungry. Let’s eat.”
“Sure.” He smiled and we left to get our shoes.
Because Tom received all his meals for free at his hotel, he offered me dinner there. He took me into the kitchen, which we reached by stepping over rocks and the small puppies sleeping on those rocks. The kitchen was a complete mess and Tom knew it. He burst into energetic hosting and began a smooth waltz about the kitchen, knowing where everything was.
“Okay, so let’s see what they have!” He lifted two pot lids on the stove.
“Hmmm…they have rice and lentils. Do you want this?” He looked at me hoping that I wasn’t too turned off by the meager meal. To speak truth, I had avoided lentils for years because of the bad memories I have associated with them, namely from my first trip to India three years prior. During that trip, my team and I were forced to eat only rice and lentils for most of our meals for an entire month and I had since become sickened by the thought of eating it by choice.
“Sure!” How eager to please we women become when we like a man.
He took a plate, washed it, dried it, and loaded it with rice and lentils. He then found a small tomato which he washed with vinegar. He cut it up in such a way that he could open it like a flower. He laid it on my plate and sprinkled it with salt.
“Wow! Nice presentation. Do you know how to cook?”
“Yes, I do!” He proclaimed, raising an eyebrow and smiling at me.
He then cleaned a glass and filled it with filtered water and a fresh slice of lemon before leading me to the same table where two days prior he had played me some of his music. We sat there in the darkness of the evening, the dull lamps softening our features, and we listened to the bugs around us while I ate and he entertained me with pleasant conversation.
As he talked I realized that he sounded like Ralph Fiennes, but Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List.” I had also been trying to pinpoint exactly which actor he physically resembled and realized it then: Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson was also in “Schindler’s List.” I wanted to share with him how he reminded me of these men, but I felt terrible telling him this because Ralph Fiennes’ character in “Schindler’s List” is a monster of a human being. Regardless, I told him how he reminded me of these two men.
“’Schindler’s List’? I can’t even watch that movie. I can’t…” He shivered and shook his head.
“I’m so sorry, Tom! I shouldn’t have said that.”
“That’s okay! So, Gabrielle, so far we’ve talked about depression, anxiety, ‘Schindler’s List’, and the Holocaust. Very light topics.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry for asking about the Holocaust.”
“No, no! That’s alright. It’s okay to talk about it.” He smiled, reassuring me.
Tom took my empty plate into the kitchen to wash it and I followed him inside.
“Hey, Tom, how do you say ‘water’ in Hebrew?”
“Mayim” he answered, scrubbing the utensils.
“Mayim-chaim!” In my mind, I was thinking about “living water”, a term that has been used to describe Jesus. But, as Tom was as familiar with Christianity, he didn’t know what I was referring to and simply nodded.
“Living water, Tom!”
He shrugged, smiled at me over his shoulder, and dried the dishes.
Feeling like a flirtatious teenager, elevated on the energy between us, I asked, “Hey, Tom want to hear a Hebrew joke?”
He was excited and waited with bated breath. “Yes!”
“Okay, here we go. How does Moses make his coffee?”
“I don’t know, how does he?”
“Wow.” Tom rolled his eyes a little and laughed. “That was good. Hey, do you want some dark chocolate? We have some in the fridge.”
While I normally hate dark chocolate, I said yes.
We went to sit back outside and Tom spotted small white flowers nestled on a little bush. He plucked a flower and as we sat, handed it to me. He then noticed that my water glass was empty and sprang up to go back into the kitchen to fill it.
When he returned, we talked more about mental health issues in the U.S. and Israel. We were on the same page. There must be more mental health awareness and accessible treatments for those in need. Therapy shouldn’t be reserved for only the rich and for those who are aware of the available resources. He lamented that Israel was severely lacking in the mental health department. In Tom’s eyes, Israel produces people who lose their sanity after having served in the IDF. He argued that Israel doesn’t particularly care that its military service produces cynical, wounded, and traumatized young Israeli people who then have no clue what to do after their military service. Independent thought wasn’t commended, although it’s the thinkers that alter the world. Actions without thought are hollow and temporary. It’s the thoughts that remain when the actions are forgotten or seen as mere bandages over a deeper wound. The books remain, leaving behind a legacy of free thought, free spirits, and guidelines on how to live a valuable life. It seemed that Israel was no place for dreamers, for peacemakers, for artists, or for lovers, at least in Tom’s mind.
“That’s why I hope to never go back there. I’m going to stay with my sister in Berlin after my time in Goa. I want to keep traveling. Like how you never want to go back to the U.S., I never want to go back to Israel. So many of my friends joined the military and came back different. They went crazy. I lost so many people.” He looked away, blinking back tears.
Strong, heartbreaking words. Tom wasn’t one to mince words about anything he was passionate about. Neither was I. Although I love Israel, I don’t agree with some of their practices and tactics. While Tom shared his heart on his homeland, I couldn’t help but imagine what he had witnessed as a boy in Israel. What he had seen must have injured his heart and he bore those scars. I wanted to soothe them.
“Anyway, I see you have henna on your arms. Can I see?”
I had completely forgotten that an Indian lady had applied henna to my arms and hands a few days before. I laid them out for his inspection.
“Very nice. I like it. Did you know that in Hebrew we say ‘henna’ the same way, but with the guttural ‘ch’ sound at the beginning?”
“Oh really? I didn’t know that. That’s so cool.”
“Yeah. Say it! Chhenna.”
I said it and he smiled, leaned back in his chair, and said, “Yeah, that’s it.”
“I love Hebrew. I want to learn it. I almost went to Israel earlier this year, in January. The trip was called ‘The Holy Land Immersion.’”
“Wow, that sounds really Jewish. Why do you want to learn Hebrew?”
“Well, I guess that when I think about Hebrew, I think about a beautiful, ancient, Biblical language full of rich history. I just like it.”
He chuckled. “Actually, the Hebrew that I speak is about 50 years old and it doesn’t sound so nice.”
“Yes, it does!”
He furrowed his brow. “How? Even with the strong ‘ch’ sound?”
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at him. “I just like it. I think it’s sexy.”
He blushed, put his hand on his chin and nodded, eyes squinting a little.
I felt bold. “You know, Tom, I’ve loved a Jewish guy before.”
His eyes widened. “Really?”, he stammered.
“Yes, in college. I never told him that I loved him, but I did. He loved me, too. I could feel it. But he would never have dated me because he was a Modern Orthodox Jewish man.”
In Israel, the Modern Orthodox movement isn’t as well-practiced as it is in the U.S., so I had to explain it to him. He nodded. “Yes, I see.” He was at a loss for words. Asserting my ready willingness to love a Jewish man and my experience loving one probably impressed upon Tom my eagerness to love him. If only he’d let me, I’d love him like no other woman could. I knew his heart had more than any woman had been able to touch before; I could touch him to the depth of his being.
The sand was running out on our time together and I wanted to touch him, and for him to hold me. “Tom, I really wish I could get a scalp massage.” I hoped he would pick up on the hint and offer me one.
He sat up a little in his chair and I continued, explaining, “Well, it’s just so relaxing and intimate. Man, it’s really hot out here.” I said, fanning myself with my hand.
He smiled a little, his eyelashes fluttering a bit, and offered for us to go sit in his hotel room, because it had working A/C. In his room, he nervously asked me if I wanted a scalp massage. I said yes and I sat on his bed while he slipped a pillow underneath my head and sat behind me.
“Okay, so my hair is really dry”, I admitted while taking down my ponytail. “So don’t judge me.” I laid back on the bed.
He laughed and said it was okay. Tom thought I was beautiful with dry hair and a halo of frizz, the one look I hate because it reminds me of my younger years when I hated my hair and didn’t know how to do it. He began to massage my scalp, disregarding the fact that he had a painfully bruised thumb from a prior kitchen accident. He pushed past the pain to bring me pleasure. I hadn’t been aware that a scalp massage included the face, shoulders, neck, and upper back as well. When I felt his fingers tenderly glide over my forehead, along my jaw, around my lips, and down my neck, I felt so loved and cared for. My mind went to a place of complete relaxation. After I had been groped in India three years prior, my body had become averse to a man touching me in any capacity, even if it was on my shoulder or arm. Yet with Tom, my body opened like a flower to his fingers and palms, allowing him to bring healing to my body with his touch.
“You’re very good at receiving massage” he said.
He gently turned my head to each side and massaged me with sweetness and soft strokes. I heard him take a little breath and pause before massaging my ear lobes. When he massaged them, I was gone. I felt that tingly relaxation rush from my head to my feet. I licked my lips in pleasure, hoping he’d notice how beautiful and full they were. This was the most intimate I had ever been with a man. No one had ever touched me like this before, physically or mentally. He was the first to become intimately acquainted with my head, my hair, my face, my neck, and my shoulders. We were such dramatic people with such a strong connection that our first touch wasn’t holding hands or hugging. No, the first time we really touched consisted of the most intimate scalp massage ever. He took a breath, tensed up his chest, and scooted closer to my right arm which had an incredibly itchy heat rash.
“Okay, I’m going to give you a lymphatic massage now. It’s uh a little boring. Just slow and…”
“That’s okay. It’s not boring.”
He paused, smiled, inhaled, and began to massage my arm. His hands slowly moved up and down my arm, his eyes fixed on my henna-decorated hands.
“Tom, don’t my hands look weird? I feel like they look weird.”
He disagreed. “No, I don’t think they’re weird. They’re perfect. You have the perfect hands to sculpt a beautiful life out of clay.”
I gave him a small smile and kept my eyes locked with his. As a writer, I couldn’t craft a more beautiful line than what he had just said to me. Tom dripped with poetry. He cleared his throat, quickly looked back at my arms, and kept massaging me.
Right after he finished my massage, he sat up, scooted away from me, and said, “So I just got out of a relationship. I’m saying this because you know, we obviously….so yeah I just got out of a relationship. So, if I’ve been a little…how do you say…”
“Distant and reserved?” I had noticed that he had been throughout our weekend together. We’d discussed in-depth things, but his lack of romantic expression had hinted at some reservation on his part.
“Yes, that’s it. Well, that’s why. And well, when Israeli men want to show their interest in a woman, they usually do something more intentional…like this.”
He moved closer and smiled at me. Sitting across from me, taking a quick breath and maintaining strong eye contact, he cupped my face in his hand. His hand felt large and warm on my face. My reaction was so childlike. I giggled. Like a little girl, I giggled.
He smiled, sat back, and said, “Well, Israeli women always make the first move.” He looked down and clasped his hands.
“Oh, well, in my culture men make the first move.” I didn’t know what to say. Latin machismo wasn’t appealing to me and I wish I had never said that. I wanted to take that as his cue to inch closer and plant a kiss on him. In retrospect, he was waiting for me to show him how that night would go. I dropped the ball.
He adamantly shook his head from side to side. “I can’t do that. And you know, we come from very different cultures. Very different cultures.” He smiled sadly and shook his head.
I didn’t know what to say at that point because I didn’t expect any of this at all. I didn’t know how to respond. I had not yet learned how to respond to men who approached me with respect and genuinely opened their hearts to me.
I simply replied, “Okay.” We laid next to each other on his bed and he grew quiet.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yes. Mhmm. I’m okay.” He said it, but he didn’t look okay. “So, what do you want to do in the future?”
“Well, I’m passionate about a lot of things. I studied English in college, so I have a heart for education and literacy, especially for young people and immigrants. But, mostly, I want to work with teenage girls and guide them as they mature into women. I know how it feels to be unwanted and abused. I don’t want another child to feel like that, if I can prevent it. I want to fight for women’s issues and speak up for what’s right. When my grandmother came to New York from Puerto Rico, she didn’t speak any English. She suffered so much because she didn’t speak English and didn’t have an education. Now I have a degree in the language she couldn’t speak. I don’t want anyone else to endure that type of somewhat helpless existence if I can help it. Whoever has the most need and is cast aside by society, I will be there.”
He slowly nodded and looked away from me for a minute. “Gabrielle, I’m excited to see how you will lead your life.” I smiled. “We need good teachers and people who really care. When we first met, and you talked about English and what makes it good, that really got me thinking. You’re right about that. No one thinks like you do. You’re so interesting. You’re a very good person.”
“No, no, no, no, I’m not.” I said, adamantly shaking my head.
He looked confused. “You don’t want to be a good person?”
I said nothing. It had been difficult to see my value and goodness lately because although I have a Cum Laude Bachelor’s degree with departmental honors, I had been jobless, broke, and without any direction in life. I knew my problems with being judgmental, prideful, and being one who is prone to snapping at people and easily taking offense. I knew my flaws well.
“What about you, Tom?” I knew that Tom was a musician, but he didn’t seem like he had a clear path set for his life either.
“Oh I’ve done so many things. So many different types of jobs. I used to make mezuzah.”
I nodded, knowing exactly to what he was referring.
“You know mezuzah?” He asked, voice rising a little, clearly incredulous at the fact that a Gentile girl from the U.S. was familiar with this esoteric part of Judaism.
“Mhmm.” I nodded. I hoped that he would begin to see that he too quickly judged what was developing between us. I may not be Jewish, but I was highly familiar with Judaism. I wanted him to see that in me. I think he did from the beginning.
He paused, looked at me in disbelief and amazement, and continued, “Oh. Well, I used to make them. I remember this Orthodox man told me that the way I had written a particular letter wasn’t Kosher, so I would have to redo the entire thing.” He shook his head. I figured he was thinking about the hypocrisies of some Orthodox Jewish people again, a topic he had mentioned a few times before. “It was good money, though.”
I weakly smiled, because money doesn’t interest me, and we laid next to each other in silence for some time. After he’d broke the tension by voicing his reflections on a future relationship with me, whatever else followed felt even fuller with sexual tension. He had voiced that he wanted me but felt that he could not have me. I knew I wanted him as well and I didn’t intend on denying myself happiness. We were on a bed together, late at night, with no one to be accountable to. It was difficult to maintain a conversation while being surrounded by this heat. Eventually I checked the time on my phone and remarked that it was past midnight. I was afraid that my Indian host may have locked the gate to my bamboo hut.
“What if it’s locked? What will I do?” I asked, hoping that his answer would be an emphatic, “Stay with me.”
It wasn’t emphatic. It was cautious. But, the answer was the same. “Well, if it’s locked, then you can stay here.” His soft eyes searched mine for my response.
We shyly smiled at each other and he took me home around 1:30 AM. The gate wasn’t locked, but I wished it was. After checking the gate, I turned around and looked at Tom. Bathed in moonlight and streetlights, I wished that he would make a bold move and kiss me. Tom’s hands had just become acquainted with each part of my face so a kiss seemed natural to follow.
“Goodnight.” I said, waiting for him to act.
“Goodnight.” He answered, warmly. His eyes locked with mine and I could see that the warmth he felt for me was eagerly searching for a way to break through and translate to his actions.
“Can I have a hug?” I tentatively asked, already opening my arms.
“Yes, of course!” He quickly bent down, gently hugged me, and watched me enter my hut. I rushed inside, did some deep breathing, and formed a text message conveying everything I had been unable to speak in his presence. I sent him a message saying that I was so quiet when he shared his heart because I didn’t expect it, so I was surprised. I confessed that I liked him a lot as well and I wished I had met him earlier.
He returned, “Wow, that’s great! Thank you for sharing that. I wasn’t sure what you were thinking in the moment, but I’m glad you told me. You’re a very special being.” Flower emoji.
I texted him the next morning that I wanted to say goodbye to him before leaving Goa. He immediately came over and jingled my bell. Upon opening the door, he saw that I wore a turquoise salwar kameez.
“Wow, you’re wearing Indian clothes. You look great!”
He never ceased to charm me, showing me how lovely he thought I was, even as we were about to part, uncertain about the future, as we all are. None of us can see the full arc of our respective lives, but there exists something hidden within us that recognizes fellow souls who are destined to guide us on our lifelong sojourn. We somewhat awkwardly parted ways with a hug and a sense that things were incomplete between us. The energy there as we said our goodbyes felt like two souls who wanted more time and were torn between saying everything they felt and being at a loss for words. We were the latter. We didn’t want this connection to end. How could it end when it seemed like knowing each other peeled back the layers of cynicism and sadness that we’d both grown over our hearts? There were countless things I wish I had said to Tom. I should have told him exactly how he made me feel, in great detail, as only a writer can. I wish I had grabbed for his hand, kissed it, and held it to my face again, feeling the heat from his hand against my skin. I would’ve loved for him to pull me close, push a curl behind my ear, and kiss me squarely on the lips, with no fear. We felt as though we needed longer to know each other deeper. We deserved that. It had appeared that forces beyond us had brought us our first significant encounter and now it was all ending so abruptly.
Tom has repeatedly told me since then that he’s sure we’ll meet again and I pray that we do. I wish I had realized it then, but, upon reflecting now, I see that Tom didn’t just want a fling in India with a beautiful American woman, as so many people who come to Goa want. No, he felt like our connection was deep and strong enough to be enjoyed and explored further than the physical. He had recognized our kinship as something unexpected and genuine, something that rushes deep inside and touches our very core. He had reflected upon the possibility of us and figured that the stark differences between us would ruin whatever we had as time passed. He undoubtedly had thought this through, albeit without asking for my opinion. He was showing me how connected to me he felt, how interested he was, but how realistic he had to be. True, there was no sense in our connection. All reason and logic were cast aside in favor of letting two souls speak their secret language. Neither of us had wanted to get too attached, but it was far too late. Happiness was in view and we both could not help but desperately grab for it, knowing that it wouldn’t entirely be ours, at least not then. We had ignited a riot in the other’s heart and there was nothing to be done in the face of such an earth-shattering connection. But, we had to be rational. If our love destroyed his family or created tension in our own, then it would slowly destroy itself through a never-ending cycle of guilt and regret. So, we unwillingly let each other go, knowing that when we would reflect on our time together, we would feel equal parts regret and relief. The world does not respond kindly to lovers like us, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe we would’ve been the difference-maker.
I do not regret loving Tom for those three days. God brought Tom, this gentle stranger, into my life at such a time as was necessary to help me grow and come to terms with who I am and from what I’ve suffered. His heart spoke to mine, although I had ensconced mine behind a high tower, refusing to reveal it to just anyone. With him, I felt my true self, my essence, finally let go of that breath I’d been holding in throughout my entire life. I hadn’t realized that I’d been holding it in, bracing myself for trauma, until I met the only person who has ever induced sweet exhalation through his words, his looks, and his touch. He felt like I was coming home to someone I didn’t expect to be my home, but upon reflecting, I realize that no one else could house me in his heart. Life doesn’t seem so daunting to me now. Tom reminded me that although I’ve endured vicious abuse at the hands of my father and my country, I have an inner strength that can’t be touched or destroyed. I know that that strength comes from God, my Father, my King. I will aim to follow Him as He guides me along my often-lonely path. While praying for Tom, I felt a strong sense of urgency course throughout my body and in that instant, I had an inkling that my time with Tom would not end on a hot day in Goa. Our story had more to come.
I didn’t know what I needed in a man before Tom, but when our minds met, it was if a veil was lifted and my understanding of myself deepened. Through being with Tom, walking with him, talking with him, and laughing with him, I discovered a part of Gabrielle that I had never known. I found myself feeling liberated, desired, and alive. Being with Tom threw me into undiscovered regenerative romantic feelings and the memories have suspended me in the thickness of them and have sustained me on those lonely nights that sometimes come. Boy, when they come, they come with a vengeance. When I lay in bed at night, feeling utterly alone and longing for what we had together, I remember how his hands felt over my body and I smile to myself, remembering feeling the light spread over me as he touched me. Do you think it’s possible for two people to belong to each other before they’ve ever met? I’m beginning to. Tom got under my skin and he’s stayed there since our first meeting. Tom was thirst-quenching and different than any other man I’d known. He didn’t offer himself as a knight in shining armor or a savior. I already had my Savior. Tom didn’t present himself as someone who could complete me, because I didn’t need that. I was already complete, although scarred. Tom didn’t treat me like a princess, showering me with material things, but he treated me like a queen, someone to whom respect and honor is due. Although he thought I was beautiful, he was interested in, entertained by, and enthralled by the nuances of my personality, never crossing my physical boundaries. He showed me the utmost respect and reverence. It was as if he deemed me some holy thing, and he had to respond accordingly, showing me how sacred I was in his sight. Tom showed himself to me as a man who immediately saw past my sometimes-stoic face, through my scarring life experiences, and into my soul. He recognized my scars as similar to his own. In him, I found those natural sympathies that people speak of. Tom was my equal and my likeness; although our life experiences differed, we shared the same pain, sadness, and hope in the goodness of life and God. His mind immediately understood mine without question. Our respective opinions on practically each topic were intertwined before we’d voiced them. His words, eyes, and hands soothed my scars, uplifting me without hesitation or fear. He could see into my being in a manner that no man has seen before. He was the first to recognize me for who I was and to love what he found hidden there. He loved me like I was a rare and exquisite flower adorned with thorns: beautiful and worth the pain of gently holding in your hand. He loved me like I was moonlight: dark, intense, mysterious, luminous, and someone to be carefully explored inch by inch.
Since my time in Goa, I’ve begun to rebuild my life in the U.S. I’m working, I have an apartment, and I’m content with working to improve my resume and pay back my debts. I’ve reflected upon my previous notions about missions work and what following Christ looks like for everyday people. My identity is no longer rooted in the legalistic actions that I do for God, but in who God says that I am. I may not be an Amy Carmichael or Elisabeth Elliot, not yet at least, but my Christian walk is not less than theirs because I stay here. I stay here to seek God’s face, to know Him better, and to realistically plan out how He may want me to serve Him and others. That might be in missions, but it might not. I’ve accepted that. Yet, I feel restless. I spend my days writing about my passions; articulating them in ways I couldn’t before. My experience with Tom has opened a new depth inside of my soul; my writing has deepened for knowing him. Tom is mysterious about his life now and our texting conversations since parting have been brief but full of unspoken regret and longing. Tom has said that it’s too painful for him to regularly communicate with me. I initially took offense to that and couldn’t understand it, but now I see. When you care for someone to such a degree that after three days you’ve already fallen for them, but then realize that it would be difficult in the long run, you can’t simply chit chat about the news and TV shows. When my name pops up on his phone it’s a reminder of what he told himself he couldn’t have. He’s told me he still thinks about me and I know I think about him every day. There are times when I wish that he had met me at a different time in his life, when his heart was fully ready to dive into a relationship. But, I’m eternally grateful for the time we did share together. I have no regrets about what I did with him, only about what I didn’t do. Tom opened aspects of my womanhood that only a strong man can. He ignited me and I’ve been alight ever since. I think of Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua para Chocolate and remember how she tells us that inside each of us exists a pack of matches. We need those matches to light or else they’ll become wet and die within us, thus killing our spirits. What lights them is the breath of our lover, music, food, sex, and passion. Tom lit so many of my matches. I want him to light the rest.