Flash Fiction: What Happens on Shabbos by Alisa Ungar-Sargon

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski

Shabbos is a day of rest. There are no cars on Shabbos. There are no computers. No television. No turning lights on and off, no cooking. Entertainment comes from elsewhere. Board games and card games and long conversations into the night. Adults are shocked when an epidemic comes to light, sweeping the teenagers of the community: Texting on Shabbos. I once got a text from Shimon on Shabbos. I saw my phone light up and I ran over to where it was plugged in to see it before the screen went dark. It said: I’m coming. I thought he meant he was coming home and I waited for him all Shabbos. He didn’t come home, though.

We got the call about Shimon on a Friday night. No one answered the phone, of course. Not on Shabbos. It wasn’t until the police came up and rang the doorbell after midnight that we knew something was wrong.

Before that.

Before that, I was in college in Chicago. I went to school but not on Fridays. I went to school but not on holidays. I went to school but I never went anywhere with my friends. No drinks, no food, no music. It was easier than an explanation.

Shabbos is for socializing, but with people who eat kosher food and understand why we don’t go to movies between Pesach and Shavuos. It’s complicated to explain why these things are important. It’s also complicated to explain why friends from college are important. It’s important to understand why these things are complicated but I don’t. Maybe by the time I’m gray and withered and no longer care about my frizzy hair or my chunky waistline I’ll be able to explain. But my great-grandmother was still on a diet when she died, so maybe that’ll never happen.

The unofficial Shabbos drink is a dessert wine in a blue bottle. The first time I got drunk was at a singles’ dinner that was short on food but had plenty of alcohol. The blue bottle was bubbly and sweet. The boy sitting next to me was cute in the way a Labrador can be if it would stop barking for a second. He walked me home afterward. It took twenty minutes and every time we turned a corner I’d inhale his cologne and try not to notice too much when his arm brushed mine. At the end he reached out to touch my back and I had pulled away before I even realized I liked it.

It’s less common for people to keep Shabbos in public and violate it in private, but it happens. The community is important. It’s more important than “being true to yourself.” The community invites us for Shabbos meals and arranges charity functions. The community celebrates our engagements and brings us low chairs when we sit shiva. We actually like being part of the community. If only the community weren’t so judgmental about hemlines and PDA.

My parents sat shiva for Shimon after he died. I was supposed to, but I didn’t leave my bed for ten days and by then it was over.

In summers, we take advantage of the warm weather to make lazy Shabbos rounds, collecting friends from across the neighborhood until we settle on a house and converge on the cool basement. In winters, during the long Friday nights, real plans must be made so that no one walks home alone in the dark without a friend.

Shimon was held up once on his way home. He had long hair at the time, underneath a big, colorful yarmulke that none of us took seriously. Since it was Shabbos, he didn’t have any money, or a phone, or righteous indignation. All he had was a big shapeless coat with a hole that exhaled feathers whenever he moved his left arm. The mugger demanded his wallet. Shimon turned to him and said, “Hey man, I’m homeless.” The mugger apologized and left him alone.

Shabbos can only be violated to save a life. The community EMTs carry around walkie-talkies that buzz at the Shabbos table, alerting us to the frailty of life amidst our conversation and talk of Torah. The community EMTs were the first ones in Shimon’s apartment. His roommate was the one who found him, and that’s what his roommate did. So they were there before the police came. They said he overdosed. They said it was an accident. These two facts refuse to coalesce. For a long time, whenever I saw an ambulance I would feel a wash of hate and it was such a relief to feel something that increases you instead of shriveling you up from the inside.

When we go to synagogue on Shabbos, we see classmates from high school, pushing babies in expensive carriages. They ask about our classes, about our siblings, which is usually when they remember I don’t have any anymore.

When we let Shabbos out, the blessings are said over a single candle with many wicks. Artisans intertwine the wicks, connecting them to each other until they create a single flame. The ritual lasts about five minutes. The candle lasts about six months. We light it on fire and watch the wax burn down to a stub. Buying a new one has started to feel like a betrayal.

Shimon is gone. Shimon is gone and I lost eighteen pounds in tears. Shimon is gone and more than the sound of his laughter I’m trying to remember what made him laugh. Shimon is gone and am I the only one in the world who remembers him. Shimon is gone and when his shloshim comes I can’t believe it’s been a month, it was yesterday, how can it have been a month if my ribs are still cracked open exposing a heart that should give up beating but refuses to, I can’t believe he’s dead I can’t believe he’s dead I can’t believe he’s dead. Shimon is gone and it’s been too long to be a mistake. Breathing is a mistake. Shimon is gone and if I let it become part of reality I won’t be able to change it back. Shimon is gone and I can’t taste food until three months later when I’m trying to study in a Starbucks and I order the biggest Frappuccino they have even though they aren’t kosher anymore and I drink all 24 ounces while I stare at a map of Africa and my cheeks are already shiny and wet before I notice I’m crying again. Shimon is gone and I don’t remember the flavor of the Frappuccino but it tasted like maybe someday I’ll forget what this hurt feels like.

Once Shimon and I went for a walk on Shabbos afternoon to Lake Michigan, about seven miles away. Even though I’m dressed nice, I take off my shoes and socks and wade into the water. I thought I held my skirt out of the way but my hem dips in and suddenly the whole bottom is wet and clinging to my legs. Shimon sees me freaking out and he starts splashing around. We get soaked through. Afterward we sit on the sand and air-dry. By the time we leave the sun is setting and it takes us so long to get back that Shabbos is already out when we do.

Alisa Ungar-Sargon received her MFA from Northwestern University and BA from Yeshiva University. Her work has appeared in Lilith Magazine, TriQuarterly, and Alma. For more information, please visit her personal website at www.alisaus.com or follow her on Twitter @_alisaus
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