As Lila lay on the floor of the janitor’s closet, running her fingers over the raised flesh on her face still hot from being burned, she considered all the choices she’d made, not because she was Jewish, but because other people knew she was Jewish. She couldn’t ignore the choked screams of the dark figure next to her, who had curled herself into the fetal position. Her screams became sobs.
Everyone felt the closure of summer. Lila no longer heard the punctual cackles from her mom’s friends on Sunday nights while they killed a bottle of Sutter Home merlot on the porch. The air had begun to fill with the smell of burnt leaves during Lila’s walks home from school, on weekends the white smoke from charcoal grilled hamburgers floating leisurely through her neighborhood, riding on the sound of leaf blowers. The new beginnings of fall brought an omniscient sense of foreboding for Lila.
Lila was stage crew for this years production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Derek, who played the lead role of Demetrius, had started talking to her after rehearsal. She thought he would ask her to spring formal. There was also talk of a visit to NYU in a few months. However, now Lila bit her nails under the duress of Mr. Holland’s English class, trying to take notes in between the noise from the hall and the whispers behind her. Then she heard:
“Kike.” clear and sharp like the hot metal point of an arrow piercing a chunk of trembling flesh. Jamie tugged at her hair, causing Lila’s head to jerk back. Lila leaned forward on her elbows, but her hair was too long and she felt another tug. “Jew face.” She tried to focus on The Crucible but the distorted words on the page made it worse, and “kike” penetrated her thoughts, bleeding her like a cut artery. “I bet your Jew mother won’t even fuck a Christian.” and another tug. “But I’ve heard Jew broads love sex. Is it true, does your mom love screwing other guys, you know with your Jew dad dead and all?” Lila gripped the sides of her desk until her knuckles were white, choking on Jamie’s lavender perfume which seemed to seethe from her body like a dust cloud. “Well?” Her heart beat in her ears. Lila looked at the clock that wasn’t moving fast enough, and Mr. Holland walked by with a handout titled “The Red Scare and Miller’s The Crucible.” Jamie leaned over and again whispered “kike” with Mr. Holland a mere foot away. Then rose the burning in the back of her eyes, the thick saliva gathering in her throat, and a stabbing pain in her forehead. Lila could already feel the tears bursting from her eyes, hot and uncontrollable. She wiped her face with her sleeve and swallowed the wad in her throat.
“Mr. Holland, can I?” She pointed toward the door. He nodded and went back to grading papers at his desk. The air felt thick, and in the hall she started crying, stumbling in the direction of the drama room, mascara running. A minute later Dawn, who had seen it happen, was next to her, pulling her into her neck, smelling of watermelon body spray.
Lila didn’t make it back to her locker until the middle of fourth period. As she watched the tiles pass beneath her feet, her red Converse sneakers gliding over flattened gum and juice stains, she wished she’d been born Lila Mark instead of Markowitz, that her black hair didn’t frizz into curls when it rained. She wished her mom didn’t cook orange marmalade brisket at Hanukkah, and that she didn’t feel safer when she wore her Star of David, because it made her feel like God was protecting her.
There weren’t many Jewish kids in school, the town of Lyman only having a small Conservative synagogue with blue and green stained glass windows out front. Lila loved to stare at them after Saturday morning prayers, although the old wood bench seating hurt her back during the three hour High Holiday services. Lila usually kept her Star of David tucked inside her shirt, and didn’t talk about going to synagogue. It wasn’t that Lyman High was an anti-Semitic place, it just didn’t help her to talk about being Jewish.
Then one day extinguished any hope she might have had of a life at Lyman High: culture day. “You’re making eggs Florentine out of a simple scrambler.” her mom said. Lila hated when she did that. Lila pleaded for weeks and prayed her mom would back out or get sick, but she showed up before an assembly of three hundred and fifty students. She presented on the best Charoset recipe to serve at a Passover Seder. Lila hid in the band room with Dawn, but she heard that her mom passed out business cards and made a bad joke about eating culture until we’re fat.
“I didn’t know you were Jewish.” The words appeared at parties and rehearsals, at school concerts and dances. That’s when Lila first heard Jamie utter the four letter word. She quit her role as Sarah Brown in that year’s spring play, Guys and Dolls, instead choosing to do stage crew.
She entered her combination and yanked off the lock. Lila searched her towering stack of papers for her European history book, digging past her handouts folder and a marked up script, her eyes seeking a brown paper dust cover. When she turned to touch up her face in the small hand mirror she’d hung in the door, Lila saw it. Grotesque in black marker with straight edged lines, stripping her bare like a prison number, a big swastika drawn across her mirror with the word written underneath, the word that held her hostage. The face staring back at her was cut by the edges of the symbol, the image of her face reshaped and labeled, “kike.” Her face looked like it had been sliced and mangled, turned into a freak Jew creation. Lila grabbed the mirror and threw it to the ground, shattering glass and plastic at her feet. She slammed her locker shut and marched toward class.
The bell rang. Faces flooded the hall, and Lila clutched her book. Her insides boiled with hate for Jamie, a hate she could only feel for the person who made her less than human, who made her a Jew. A group of guys in dark hoodie sweatshirts who smelled like fried eggplant leaned in and whispered as she walked by. She wanted to claw their eyes. Dave Miller waved at her, but she didn’t wave back.
Suddenly, she felt her hair yanked by thin fingers, and the hard light of the hallway cut to blackness, like the dropping of a curtain. She heard a door slam and felt herself pushed against a metal shelf. She could smell dust, ammonia, and lavender.
“Jew bitch.” she felt a hand shoot to her throat, and another come across her face with a smack. The hand on her throat squeezed and the air in her lungs became sparse. Lila flailed her arms, trying to hit the dark figure in front of her and peel the fingers off her throat, when another, harder smack came across her face. “We need to teach you Jews a lesson.” The hand forced her back against the shelf, knocking bottles off that hit her in the head. Lila felt a fierce pain and hot liquid run down her head onto the back of her neck. Lila reached in front of her, clawing, swiping with her open palm, kicking, but the arm was too long and the room began spinning. She saw sparks and heard the flick of a lighter, and a flame appeared next to a petit hand. “Burn Jew.” She blew out the flame and a searing pain, like the peeling of skin from bone, struck her cheek. Lila tried to scream but all that came out was a pathetic gag, the sound of her attackers victory. The room was moving farther away, and she felt the lingering burn on her cheek becoming cold. A hand came up and slapped the burning flesh.
The room, the smell of burned flesh and lavender perfume, started to drift from her consciousness, but inside she rebelled. Before her body gave in to the darkness, she grabbed at the arm a last time, this time feeling an elbow, straightened and extended. She pinned the hand to her throat and brought her forearm down and then up toward the straightened elbow, making a plus sign with her assailants arm and breaking through it. The crack rang through the entire room, and Lila was on the ground drinking in air. Her attacker was screaming and crying. Holding her throat, Lila sat up and tried to focus her eyes. Once her eyes adjusted she saw light hair and a thin frame, then Lila felt her face. She could feel the hot, softened skin where she’d been burned. A pain stung the back of her head, blood trickling down the back of her neck. Tears wound their way down Lila’s face, but she didn’t care. The room had stopped wobbling and now she heard sobbing next to her. She wanted to feel triumphant, like she’d won, but she didn’t feel anything good. All Lila could think was that there was lots of pain, and both of them hurt, but she had survived.
Channel News 5: “ Following the arrest of his daughter, Jamie Douglas, who assaulted a local Jewish girl at Lyman High School last week, Timothy Douglas, president of the Neo-Nazi group White Warriors, was apprehended at his Lowell Street house Tuesday night on charges of assault and battery of his daughter, as well as suspected hate crime and manslaughter charges. Found in his basement were copies of Mien Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text purporting a plan for Jewish world domination, and a key book used by the Third Reich…”