“You didn’t have to come with me, Sam. I’m okay.”
Sam handed me the challah I’d made the day before, wrapped in a cloth. He’d always scared me a little bit, tall and athletic and proud. He looked like the kind of boy who would make fun of me back home.
“This was something you did with your dad for the new year, right? But this time you baked the bread by yourself. You got all the groceries by yourself. This last thing you shouldn’t do alone.”
I raised an eyebrow at Sam. He was a good guy, which was literally the most annoying thing about him. His understanding of Rosh Hashanah was basic at best. He asked me why my challah was bumpy before saying, “Happy New Year, I guess.”
“Okay fine,” he said, looking down the long river that ran through the forest, “I don’t know anything about you and your dad, or why you wanted to come to this dingy creek and throw perfectly good bread in the water while clearing your throat—”
“I, of course, meant speaking Hebrew, which is a very nice sounding language that does not sound at all like a robot eating trail mix.”
I rolled my eyes. He wasn’t wrong about the river, it was crooked and overgrown and unassuming, even the tiny waterfall. Just enough of a drop to be scary, but not enough to hurt. Shouldering past Sam, I found my first foothold on the rocks. I ground the sole of my sneakers into the stone, making sure it wasn’t too slippery.
“Abi, I can help—”
“I’m fine, Sam.”
I braced myself against the river rocks, one at a time. Sam would’ve been angry if I wasn’t careful. I cradled the challah in my hands like a newborn baby, looking down into the mossy water. Sam followed a few feet behind me. I could hear him saying ‘hup’ to himself as he cleared each rock, like a circus performer.
Sitting down on the precipice of the littlest waterfall, I calmly waited for Sam to join me. I knew he would be upset if I started without him, even if I didn’t really get why. Sam was Catholic, like actually Catholic, he got confirmed and everything. He went to Mass and I once heard him say “and also with you” when we watched Star Wars together. His New Year was in January, not September.
Sam groaned a little when he sat down, like he was ninety, not nineteen. I unfolded the cloth that the challah was wrapped in and ripped a piece off of the end. All of a sudden, I felt like whispering the prayer, instead of speaking it loud, which was stupid. It was just Sam.
I forced myself to intone the verse from Micah in Hebrew like a Rabbi, and thought about my dad. He’d had a voice like a thunderstorm, rumbling and gruff. It made me feel safe. I tossed my chunk of bread into the water.
“What does that mean?” asked Sam.
“It means ‘He shall return and grant us compassion; He shall hide our iniquities, and You shall cast into the depths of the sea all their sins.’”
“Do you have sins?”
“Not really. I have regrets, worries, anxieties. My dad won’t get to see me graduate high school or college, my mom doesn’t know how fucking cool I am, wherever she is. Stuff like that.”
“Can I throw one? For my sins, I guess.”
I handed a chunk of bread to Sam. He whipped it downstream as fast as he could. It sailed past the rocks and the trees, over the drop of the littlest waterfall and presumably, into the river. I didn’t hear it hit the water.
“Sam. You’re supposed to let go of your sins, not hurl them into oblivion.”
Sam was the kind of guy who worked up to a thing like that, but he knew that rambling made me nervous. He didn’t have to be nice to me about something that was his business. If it was the other way around, Sam probably would’ve hugged me and told me that he loved me, but somehow that didn’t sound like me. I did love Sam, but I wasn’t a hugger.
“That’s okay. You know that, right?”
“Somewhere, I think I do. I’m really tired, Abi.”
I tore off a piece of bread and handed it to Sam.
“Then let go of that feeling. Let go of feeling tired and ashamed and guilty. It’s just you and me out here.”
Sam tossed the piece of bread over the edge of the waterfall. It landed against the surface of the water with a light splash. We watched it drift gently down the river. Sam leant his head up against my shoulder. It was probably uncomfortable, given that he was six inches taller than me, but I knew he just wanted someone to take care of him.
“I think your dad would be okay, if you wanted to tell him. I’m not telling you what to do or when to do it, but I think your dad would be okay.”
“He’s Catholic. He teaches at a Catholic school.”
“He’s never hateful. Not to people like you, not to people like me, not to anyone. He wrote a college recommendation letter for Winnie, and she’s a lesbian.”
“Winnie’s a lesbian?”
“Not the point.”
“I’m his son. It’s different.”
“Yeah, but if he’s a dick then I’ll yell at him. We can hitchhike. My cousin’s got a place in Vermont and there’s a go bag in my closet for in case someone breaks into the house and wants to murder us.”
Sam sat up laughing. He tilted his head side to side, cracking his neck.
“You really thought of everything, didn’t you, Abi?”
“How do you say ‘happy New Year’ in Hebrew?”
“You don’t. You say l’shana tova, it means ‘for a good year.’”
“Oh. Well, l’shana tova, Abigail.”
“L’shana tova, Samuel.”
Ari Stemple lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They are a writer, artist, and musician.