Updated: Oct 2, 2019
The flight home from Israel went by in a daze, and before I knew it I was standing at the luggage carousel, waiting for my big black suitcase. I already had a heavy load. A suit bag carrying most of my clothes, along with an overnight bag. For a few moments, I forgot everything and focused on wrestling my baggage from the carousel.
The time had come to face my parents. They would be waiting just through the sliding doors. I did not want to. I could not imagine how I would face them and pretend that I was fine and not on the verge of a breakdown. I knew how excited they were to see me. Especially my mom. She had been waiting for me to come home since before I left. Over the past few weeks, I had considered asking her if I could stay, but I knew the question alone would devastate her.
My heart trembled and my head pounded, bringing me back to drunken nights as a teenager. The night I got wasted and told my parents I was depressed as an excuse for my bad behaviour. I breathed in deep and located the way out. I walked briskly, staring straight ahead, my teeth clenched to hold back my emotions.
I spotted them after a few seconds. My father had already seen me, and I saw the dorky smile on his beaming face. He pointed me out to my mother, and I saw her nervous excitement grow. My own face dropped and tears nearly came flooding from my eyes. I tried to smile, but I might as well have tried to sink through the floor. I found my way to them and stood lifeless as they hugged me and welcomed me home.
I tried to find my voice and share their joy - I promise - but the sadness lay way too deep. They did not know that I had lost everything. The country I loved, the yeshiva I loved, all of my friends, and… him. Him especially. I could never tell them that.
I watched my parents’ faces change. My dad suddenly looked sad and concerned. My mom disappointed, angry, and deflated. I had ruined her moment. She looked as if she’d suddenly aged twenty years and been purged of everything but skin.
My dad said that I was overwhelmed. That it would take some time to get used to being home. We walked to the parking, where he proudly displayed his new Tata Indica. Guilt flooded through my arteries as I tried - I promise I tried - to show any kind of interest. Instead, I flopped inside the car and breathed heavily, clenching my teeth to stem the emotion.
As we finally rolled through familiar streets, I became all the more despondent. The sight of foliage, like you'd struggle to find throughout Israel, made my insides churn. It was all exactly the same as it had been during my past life in this land. This land in which he did not exist. A land in which he could not exist, because if I let him exist, my parents would know the impossible truth.
It was impossible. I could not be gay. And it was still somehow the truth.
“He’s getting settled now,” my mom said, as I scooted around the house, trying to find any sign that I hadn’t gone a year back in time. “He’s back in familiar surroundings, hey?”
She spoke in the third person, her despondence having turned to pity and concern. I was her son and I would soon show her my love. I just had to get settled in my familiar surroundings.
There could not have been a more inaccurate choice of words than settled. My entire being was in upheaval. I could not accept being back here - I tried, I swear, I tried. I could not accept what I had lost.
Getting settled. No, agitated would have been accurate, a word that perfectly described the conflict within me of being in a world both post-him and somehow pre-him. Living in the horror of grieving for someone who never was.
“Can I phone someone… there?” I said, unable to stop myself.
My parents looked at each other.
“Okay,” my dad said. “Just don’t be too long.”
I used the landline to call his cellphone.
“You're already back?” he said.
“Yes,” I choked.
“Jeez. I’m sorry.”
“Everything is the same as it used to be. I just want to be back” with you.
We had never really discussed our emotions. Our relationship had always been a happy-go-lucky slew of insults, affection, and jokes. This call could only last a few minutes. Neither of us knew what to say, and when I hung up I felt worse than I had before.
I attempted another route back to the Holy Land. Dovi B had put together a video of the guys from our programme. It was really just a slideshow, scored with songs that each of us liked, burnt to DVD.
I told my parents I wanted to watch it. We went to the playroom which had long ago become the living room in all but name. I started the DVD and watched as the faces of my friends went by. I saw myself smiling, happier than I had ever been, as Nothing Else Matters mournfully played.
He went by in bad photos that belied his vitality and charm. I looked at my parents, neither of whom were watching.
I lay down in bed at around 9PM, believing I would somehow fall asleep and end this long day. Misery flooded my body. Depression overwhelmed me, and I stood up, thinking somehow that would make it better. Standing up could not help. Lying down or standing up, I was fucked. I could not bear this hell, I could not. Not for another moment. I could not be in this dark room, alone with my terrible thoughts and burning memories.
I went back to the playroom. My parents were still up, eating dinner while watching Little Britain on BBC Prime.
“I can’t sleep,” I managed to choke out.
My dad nodded, a serious but nonjudgmental look on his face. My mom just stared at the TV. Bed was better. I went back, paced up and down my room, returned to the playroom and sat all alone on the couch, as my parents ate dinner a couple of metres away.
There was no solution, I could see that. I had no way of ever getting back to him. Even if I did, what would I do? Tell him I loved him and wanted to be with him? How could that do anything other than make it worse? If there was the slightest chance he felt the same, we would simply both be in the same leaking boat.
I wanted to talk about him. I wanted to tell someone how much I loved him. To detail every little thing that made me crave him. The way he would squeeze my cheek affectionately, the way he would lick my fingers when I did the same to him. The way he called me “Sparky” after I started voicing more of my cutting, cynical humour. He had brought that out in me. He had somehow made it so much easier to express myself. He had made it so much easier to be me.
Talking about him would make it possible to continue what I had started with him. It would mean I wasn’t leaving everything I loved about myself with the boy I loved in Israel. It would provide an escape from the serious, reserved, shy person I had always been back home. I needed to talk about him. I knew that not doing so would be catastrophic for my sense of self.
But doing so would destroy my life. I did the only thing I could, and remained silent.
I was depressed. Not a major, agitation-filled “episode” like I would experience later in life and like I had experienced that first night, but a constant inability to smile or enjoy life that led me to believe I had to somehow get back. I told my parents I wanted to emigrate, to make aliyah.
“If you can’t be happy in my home, why am I alive?” my mom said. “I should just kill myself.”
My guilty lips trembled, unable to form a response. Unable to reassure her and tell her it was not her fault, and that I could not be happy no matter how hard I tried.
“It’s like he’s in love with a girl there,” my dad said, sometime later.
I would wake up every day at around 5AM, and lie in bed vaguely panicked with the near-certain knowledge I would not make it back to Israel in time. He was only there for another year. After that, there was just no point.
My father was an Israeli citizen, and if I spent more time there I’d be forced to go to the army. My only option, as I saw it, was to voluntarily emigrate and do their hesder programme. Another year in yeshiva, after which I’d spend a year and a half in the army. I would have to get back there in May if I was to start the programme while he still lived there. No one else understood how urgent this was.
Every day I would listen to Dana International’s version of Zemer Shalosh HaTshuvot, an Israeli song about a woman agreeing to go through anything for her man. Promising to let him sleep with whores and leave her all alone, if that’s what he asked for. But declaiming that she would not do one thing - forget him. Not even if he begged her to.
I wondered if there would ever be a day that I did not think about him. I wondered if I could bear the possibility. I needed to get back. I set the wheels turning.
Getting things done had never been my strong point. And now, I had to organise my emigration all by myself. It was impossible, I knew. I did not have a driver’s license. I had no money. I had very little information.
Still, I did not give up. I did not speak of it with my mother except in guilty half sentences. I felt my dad supported it to an extent, but he would not openly back it. I stopped speaking to my parents. I stopped being miserable around them. I showed them no sadness. I showed them no anger. I showed them none of my existential terror. I showed them nothing but numbness.
When, after three or four months, I began to feel happy once in awhile, I did not show them that either. They might think my resolve had changed. They might expect me to start talking. To say things I had no will to say. I showed them nothing.
I immersed myself in a South African yeshiva and moved into a flat there. I shut my parents out, visiting for an hour or so on a Friday afternoon, and staying every fourth shabbat. I could never be happy in that home, nor could I be sad or angry. I could only be numb. I dreaded those visits, and could not wait to get back to the yeshiva, feeling immense relief on Sunday morning. Holidays were the same. I stayed away from my parents’ home, even when I had to be physically present.
Over time, I stopped talking about returning to Israel. I couldn’t overcome the logistical challenges on my own. More important, I had begrudgingly accepted that I was happy in yeshiva in South Africa. I felt like I belonged among the kind, lovable friends I had made. I could see the futility of giving that up for a few months with a boy I could never love in the way I wanted.
That acceptance did not in any way alter the way I saw my parents’ home. It was my past life. A world in which my new reality did not exist. A world of silence that could never be reclaimed, even when I left religion and came out five years later.