Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
We here at Derailleur Press hope you had a restful and meaningful holiday weekend!
This week we're closing out our series on Intimacy with a story from Mattue Roth. This thoughtful piece examines the painful intimacy of prayer and tradition.
We hope you've enjoyed reading these stories as much as we enjoyed selecting them for you. And if you loved what we have published so far, visit our store to preorder your copy of our upcoming fiction chapbook Late Stage.
-The Derailleur Press Team
A Hollywood backlot last week. I was there to visit a friend, who’d recently gotten a semi-regular job as a minor character on a major sitcom. Actually, she was my best friend’s girlfriend. But I was in L.A., and my friend wasn’t, and the girlfriend invited me to come to work with her. They were rehearsing, running through the same three-minute scene an infinity of times. I sat in the empty audience bleachers and watched them walk around a fake living room. I envied the ability to be able to do what they did, to rewind time again and again to make it perfect. Inside the hermetically-sealed warehouse, I got the sense the sun was going down. I went outside, to the hallway, and found a place to pray. Three steps back, three steps forward, I transformed that little area into a chamber for G-d to inhabit. I stood still and swayed back and forth.
The place I’d picked to pray was one of those narrow alcoves, a Cubist lump where the wall hiccupped inward for no apparent reason. The wall faced east, toward Jerusalem, and I fit neatly inside. It was only after I’d gotten far enough into the prayers so that I couldn’t move--once you did your dance of the three steps, I was frozen in place until the concluding section hit--when I realized, inside my sandwich of three walls, I was literally two steps away from the men’s bathroom. I pushed it out of my mind, to keep focused on the prayers. One of the stars of the series brushed past me and into the bathroom. Our shoulders actually touched, even though the hallway wasn’t that narrow. I wasn’t sure why, if he was coming onto me, if he was drunk, if he was just clumsy like I was. I tried not to listen, but, can you close your ears, how can you willfully not hear something? The stream of liquid was long, unbroken, stretching to whole minutes. A strange thing: I’d long had this thought, I’d love to be an actor, except for the long periods on stage and the infrequent, time-mandated pee breaks. I’d wondered how they did it. That was how. Did you know there’s a prayer we say for going to the bathroom, thanking G-d for creating the system of openings and closings in our bodies, acknowledging that if those tubes and combines didn’t work exactly the way they did, we’d be poisoned, immobilized, unable to live? We say that prayer every time we urinate or defecate, after washing and leaving the bathroom. It was not, however, a part of the normal afternoon prayer. The prayer I was saying right now.
The series star extracted himself from the bathroom, shook his hands in the air upon leaving, far enough away from his body so no loose drops were shaken onto his outfit. He gave me a long, hard look, as if he’d heard my every thought, my entire rambling eschatological intrusion into his pee break, the kind of look he probably routinely gave to paparazzi, a look that said, Don’t you have anything better to do with your life? Nope. No, I thought, I do not.
Living in the city got too expensive, or maybe it was just too stressful. Either way, it felt like the right excuse. I surrendered my apartment and found a house for rent, a whole house, a twenty-minute walk from the last stop on the subway line. On the way home, I passed goats. Goats! I shook hands on the lease in early summer but by autumn, the commute was wearing thin. The porch got too cold to be inviting in the evenings and the walk grew familiar and boring. At first boring was what I was looking for. Then it was just boring. I used to pray the sunset service in the drawing room, which I kept gloriously empty of furniture--just a blank room, nothing to distract me but my own thoughts. One window was stained glass. In the afternoons sun shadows played across my face, dancing in distracting color. I convinced myself I was being so holy, thinking of G-d all day. I no longer had other things to think about. That wasn’t holy; G-d created a whole world to distract us. And anyway, G-d in isolation is simple, too easily believable, taken for granted. G-d loses that complexity, that glorious fucked-upishness of perfection (G-d) and flaw (Creation) that makes our servitude meaningful. This act of cutting our afternoons in half just to sing praises to Someone who never answers back. The days grew short. It was daylight when I got into the subway after work and dark when I came out. I had to start praying on the train car. It swiveled and swerved madly; I stood still and faced toward Jerusalem as best as I could. When spring came, I gave notice. To my apartment and to my job. To the subway, too, to the very city I’d once wished for. I thought about heading East, to where I was from, the direction that I faced when I prayed. No, I liked the West Coast. The easy, compromising hippyness of the place; the feel of the ocean behind me, as if it were my enforcer. I’d head south. I’d try out L.A.
The roof of my ex-girlfriend’s house. I stood between beds of hydroponic plants. Yes, there is pot--of course there’s pot--but there’s also cardamom pods, jalapeño, basil, my own beloved cilantro. I’m writing this in past tense, after the fact, but even then she was still my ex. I was still over there first thing in the morning. Even when something’s wrong, you don’t necessarily stop doing it. And even when you’re doing something wrong, that’s not the only thing you’re doing. We were so bad for each other. We kept craving each other. And neither of us was very good at saying no.
No isn’t all I said. For the sin which I committed and the sin which I am about to commit. But in that moment, the moment I was on the roof, surrounded by light and air and my prayer shawl, nothing in my head but some thousand-year-old words, I was doing all right.
Those days I prayed earlier than I ever had before. So on time, I might as well have gone to a synagogue, if there had been a synagogue nearby. It was her snoring that did it to me. She had a long, gorgeous, equine nose. It was like an airplane cockpit or a punctuation mark. But her snore was the devil’s work. It shocked me awake, reminded me that I had other concerns, that the totality of the universe was not her.
I was always a night person. I stayed up until my conversations slurred together, and my words, and memories. I didn’t need nightclubs anymore; I didn’t need nights. When I woke up in the morning I was crisp and new. I saw everything differently. And when I prayed, I saw things differently, too. And also when I left.
Outside a lesbian club. I’d been living in San Francisco for a few months, in a gay neighborhood. Most of my friends were gay. My roommates were gay. I’d always had gay friends; it was an occupational hazard of being one of the Kids That Don’t Fit In, in a small town, you all get lumped together--the gays, the Jews, the Dungeons & Dragons bunch. This was the first time that I was actually surrounded by them, that I could truly call myself my own token straight friend. At nights I went cruising with them. They cruised, I didn’t. It was the first time in my life that I actually appreciated bars. I was like a spectator, not in that creepy way (that was what I told myself) but sort of an accessory to the act: a wingman on some nights, an artistic appreciator during others. There was a woman there in long and flowy clothes, someone whom I kept staring at because I thought we used to know each other, and then I realized she was on TV regularly. She was trying to talk to my roommate. My roommate was giving me signals, secret signals we’d made up as a joke but were turning out to be serious. At first she was rubbing her nose along the left nostril. That meant she wanted me to stay, to actively engage her, to jump in the conversation whenever I could. The TV girl was forceful. She acted like she owned everyone there. Because I was the straight guy, and because I had no expectation of the night, I acted out of character, saying everything I was thinking of, whether it was clever or not, boasting up a storm. Then something shifted. Something I couldn’t tell--a change in the weather, or the atmosphere. She raised her right eyebrow at me, twice, in rapid succession. That meant back off. I went to the bathroom. There was a tiny window that looked like a mailslot, surrounded by dirty red graffiti like congealing blood. It gleamed. It blazed. It was brilliant and ominous, the last rays of the setting sun. I left without using the bathroom--I didn’t need to use the bathroom; I just wanted to see what the men’s room in that bar might look like. I ran outside. On the corner, and to the consternation of the bouncer, and the surprise of several frat-boy tourists pouring through the neighborhood, I stood to the side of the bar’s doors--they were adorned with painted pictures of a wide-open labia--and prayed.
My parents’ house. This is the room that secreted my everything. The Doctor Who scripts I wrote as a child; the toys I stole from my friend Cameron’s house; virtually every act of masturbation, until I refined it. I spoke to G-d every night for years in bed, and then I stopped believing in Him. I didn’t start again until after I moved out. I’d never had to think of this before. Standing in the center of my bedroom, which way is Jerusalem?
I actually don’t stand in the center. I stand by the window, facing a wall. A Hasidic master said that you should always stand near something sturdy, a tree or a wall. So that it reminds you how flimsy you are, and gives you a reason to cry out to the Almighty.
I pray. The Talmudic sages’ words, not my own; a script passed down, more coherent than anything I could manage to come up with. The Hebrew syllables still unfamiliar on my eyes, in my mouth; I hold the book in front of me, and then I hold it closer, until the words blur together. From long ago, they come back to me, some of them. A tune. A trickle of pronunciation.
I don’t see G-d in these words. I don’t know why I’m doing this. Other things I’ve recently started to do, blessing my food, not using electricity on Sabbath, they all feel like sensible things--well, within the basic it-doesn’t-make-sense framework of G-d told me so--because they’re so purposeful, so symbolic, that of course I should be doing illogical things. Sabbath, because G-d rested and so should we; G-d gave me this food; therefore, I should say thank you for it.
But praying? Talking to G-d in a language that I don’t speak? It feels useless. Utterly not my own. Something I’m only doing because G-d wants me to.
And that’s when I start to understand it.
Mattue Roth's work has been published in Ploughshares, Tin House, and the Saturday Evening Post, and is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review. He was shortlisted for The Best American Short Stories 2018. His picture book My First Kafka was called “eerie and imaginative” by the New Yorker. By day, Mattue is a writer at Google.