Acts of Ascension
Danny/Rueven, from The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
Rated PG, for mild sexual content.
"Do you know what I'm thinking?" Danny asks as he stretches out his legs until the soles of his metal tipped immigrant shoes meet the bottom of the looming bookcase opposite him, and the tzitzit that hangs over his thighs brushes the dusty library floor.
"What?" I look up from the book spread open across my knees, push up my glasses.
"I'm thinking about when you were in the hospital and I said you were looking at me as if I were the Messiah. Do you remember?"
Danny tilts his head back against the books and his skullcap does not budge. His sleek jaw is calm, perfectly sculpted. It was one of the first things that I noticed about my strange friend, who does not seem quite so strange to me now. Brilliant, confused, but not so strange.
"I remember," I say, and swallow because thinking about that day is only a reminder of being in the hospital, of being sick with fear, and sick with hate for Danny, at least at first.
"I don't think I'm the Messiah," Danny says.
"That's good." I smile. "I mean, for someone who doesn't want to be a Rabbi, you're probably off to a pretty good start."
"You're always trying to be cute, you know that?"
"Part of what makes me so charming."
Danny curls his lips into an affectionate smirk as if agreeing. It's a hard expression to stomach.
I look back down at my book, take a breath. Instead I concentrate hard on the mathematical theory I'm trying to swallow today--it goes down easier.
A few moments pass. Perhaps even a minute. Neither one of us wears a watch, but we both wear the four cornered garment. Danny twirls one of his blond side-curls deftly between two long fingers.
"I think you might be the Messiah," he says, breaking our silence.
I look up sharply and Danny meets my gaze with steady blue eyes. Danny Saunders has such clear blue eyes that they look as if they were cut from emeralds. You'd think his father would make him wear sunglasses.
"That's not funny."
"I mean it," Danny says earnestly and throws up his hands. "Look at you! You, with options around every corner. You could probably play for the Dodgers if you wanted and yet you... you want to be a Rabbi. A man of G-d. Piety written all over your face like some kind of Golem. You want to help people; you think you'll gain pleasure from it!" He laughs softly. "I think that's Messiah worthy."
"Do I really amuse you that much?" I ask, and can't keep the reproach from my voice.
"No, no… Rueven." He sighs, and looks at me so warmly that I can feel his gaze. "Honestly, I think it's great. Different. But great. Really great. It's just hard for me… hard for me to see why you would want to be a Rabbi." He pauses. "I guess it's that you don't have to be one."
"Yeah, that could be it," I answer, cold without intending to be.
Danny puts a hand over my knee. Squeezes.
"I think it's great," he says again.
"My father would kill me, you know. He'd just kill me if he saw me on the floor of this library, touching you, you apikoros."
"Then get your hand off my knee, you sonofagun," I say, half-smiling, half-fearful.
"I don't want to," Danny says, just like that. "I don't want to be a Rabbi, or a spiritual leader, or even a Talmudic scholar. I just don't want to. And I don't want to take my hand off your knee. I like your knee. It's a nice knee, rounder than mine."
Danny's fingers grip my knee and we look at each other then. He swallows hard, and I can see his throat move. He wets his lips, and even though I knew what was coming before, I really know what's coming now. He leans forward across the narrow space between us, and I don't know if I should close my eyes, or push him away, or say something, or… or just kiss him, too.
And so I kiss him, or rather, I let him kiss me: his hand on my knee, my nose bumping his cheek, his other hand coming up to hold the back of neck and pull me closer to him, closer into him. Danny Saunders kisses me on the floor in the basement of the Brooklyn Public Library, not far from our homes, and we are surrounded by secular literature, by sin and its remarkable sustenance. I tug gently at one of his side-curls, he tries to deepen the kiss. Only then do I pull away.
Danny looks wild. For the first time since I've known him his skullcap is askew, and I realize it must be my fault.
"You stopped me," he says breathlessly, as though no one ever stops him.
"I know," I say, and then we stare at one another helplessly for a long while, our eyes locked, our legs somehow intertwined, movement which must have occurred during the course of that endless, shameful kiss.
"It wasn't shameful," Danny says.
He's always reading my mind. He knows guilt.
"Nothing I've read, not even Freud, says that it's exclusively shameful. Not normal maybe...." He tries a small smile as he trails off. "But shame? Shame is religious in origin. Science knows no shame."
He wants me to believe this so badly. And I want to. I really do. My body wants to. Danny reaches to touch my cheek and I let him. He lingers for a moment and then says, "May I?"
I nod, and Danny takes off my glasses, pocketing them carefully in his shirt. His eyes plead with me: let me continue. Again. Again. Again. I need to know.
"I got those repaired not so long ago, you know," I say.
Danny only nods seriously, as if he missed the joke all together or simply chose to ignore it, and then he 's kissing me again. Kissing me seriously, with his hand back on my neck while our teeth nearly clash together, but I open my mouth and his tongue slides against mine if only for a moment. It makes me gasp and I know that my heart is going to destroy itself, all while Danny is gripping the back of my white shirt into his left fist, and pressing, pressing himself into me. Our black shoes scuff up the floor as we struggle together for this--Danny, for some sort of knowledge, and me...me for Danny, for all that Danny is, for all I wish to be.
My second kiss, I realize, and it's him, Reb Saunders' son, who's doing it... but I. I can manage that. I can more than manage that for now. For now and until a startled librarian happens upon us, or the setting sun calls us home for Sabbath eve.