I found my Bar Mitzvah speech in a pile of old papers. For about seven seconds, I was ecstatic -- I am such a big fan of young me. At eight, I wrote the best one-page science fiction sagas (Sherlock Brains and the Revenge of Morty Silly-Putty on the Slime Planet, with two sequels) and when I was eleven, I handed in a rhyming parody of “The Raven” as a class journal assignment. As the most formal writing assignment and the biggest public reading of my young life, it was sure to be a doozy. It had to be a doozy...right?
It was awful.
And not just like, braggadocio-awful or pimping-awful. It was straight-up mugging for the camera. There were no Torah thoughts, no analysis of the haftarah I sang. (In retrospect, the subject of my haftarah was Rahav, the kindly prostitute who helped the Israelite spies infiltrate the indigenous population of Canaan. If I had tried to decipher the meaning of the story, or offer a lesson based on it, I’d either be the most precocious 13-year-old on the block or the most psychotic.) It was basically a list of people who I wanted to thank. My parents, for paying for the event. My friends. There was a special secret shout-out to the girl I had a crush on, whom I didn’t name -- possibly the one subversive thing I came at all close to accomplishing that day.
Being ashamed of your younger self is nothing strange or novel. As Ani Difranco says, we were made to bleed, to scab, to heal, to bleed again. But regret is a strange and rabid creature. For weeks afterward, I found myself agonizing over and rewriting the speech in my head. Why did I try to orchestrate those stupid shout-outs to my friends? Why did I include a joke about how much money my parents were spending on the party -- nothing compared to the hip-hop-star-headlining bar mitzvahs, but not even a grand affair by the standard of my friends back then, though it was a lot for them, to be sure -- more than they’d ever spent on anything except their car.
But I remember more than anything the fights. I wanted a DJ. They wanted, and booked, a band -- Stu Weitz and His Orchestra, I still remember his hair. The fiercest battle started when it came to the candle lighting. There was a loose tradition, not a real tradition, just something people were doing, to call up different groups of people to light each candle on the cake. I wanted one candle lit by my school friends, another for my neighborhood friends, a third for my one or two best friends. My parents refused. This was one point on which they would not cave in: we had relatives coming in from out of state (the bridge from Jersey), cousins to honor, friends who’d called my parents up at their kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs. There were priorities, there was decorum.
I was a kid. I didn’t realize what it meant. This investment, their time, our collective party-planning inexperience. I begged them. I threatened to throw fits, to purposely flub my Bar Mitzvah portion. They knew I was bluffing. This meant a lot to them; a lot. They’d never spent this much money on a party before. They only had one son. My wedding, if it ever happened, would be a whole other matter. This was their last big party they would ever have. I was allotted one candle for my friends.
And that, I think, is what I wanted to showcase with that speech. I wanted it to be my candlelighting ceremony, squeeze in all the thanks and the gratitude and the me-centricness that my Bar Mitzvah party would never be. Years later, with the gilded leatherbound photo album of my bar mitzvah sitting in my parents’ closet, there’s one page it automatically opens to, the only page I ever wanted to look at: the photo of my four friends who were called up.
There is Kenny, Orthodox at the time--he’d just become ultra-Jewish, wearing a yarmulke not only in synagogue but full-time, refusing to eat at any not-fully-kosher house, even his own. At my bar mitzvah, he had a special meal shrink-wrapped and served with plastic cutlery like an airplane dinner. A year later, he would not be observant at all, dating a non-Jewish girl, the first of our crowd to have sex.
There is Patrick, freshly out of the hospital after a car accident and a near-complete spinal fracture. He poses for the picture wearing a metal halo designed to keep his head upright at all times, the bars tenting over his head like a cage for his yarmulke, which he wore that day even though he wasn’t Jewish. Of everyone, his smile was the loudest, the most singularly glad to be there, not because it was a party but because it wasn’t a hospital.
There is Jeff Sutton, who lived in Cheltenham, and who I thought I was much better friends with than I actually was. It was more of a friend-crush than an actual friendship. I’m not sure if I was more into his stuff (a bigger and more expensive collection of baseball cards, and a complete set of the Hardy Boys Casefiles, a world removed from the regular Hardy Boys series, which had things like terrorists and bombs and making out) or into his world (bigger bedroom, bigger house, and a life in the suburbs, a less sports- and fighting-intensive life than my own). In another few months, I’d be in high school, and devoutly punk, and we would never hang out again.
And then there is Debbie Deal, who I had such a huge and ridiculous crush on. It was not at all because of the person she was--she was perfectly nice, and she tolerated me more than she probably should have. Me, who in junior high was reading college-level books and had an elementary-school level understanding of relationships. I left candy on her seat in the mornings before school orchestra practice--I was the first one there, obviously. I think the note I left may have even said sweets for the sweet and now, just thinking about it makes me want to stab at my vein with a fork. One day I told her I liked her. Later we were changing classes, I was descending a staircase and Debbie and her friends were in front of me. “I can’t believe he actually said that,” said her best friend Kelly (blond, jowly cheeks, a jock) and I knew they were talking about me. Why did I still invite her? Why did I ask her to light a candle? My own madness. And that then, on the eve of my thirteenth birthday, I still viewed girls as a problem to be solved. If I said the right things to her, changed myself in some specific way, we would click and she would like me.
I asked her to dance that day. Way too late in the party, things were already winding down, the burgers and chicken fingers were being taken away and I was like, I’m going to do it, no time but right now. I excuse-me’d my way past relatives, classmates, friends of my parents proffering check-stuffed envelopes. She was talking to some girl from our school, a distant cousin. “Debbie,” I said, “do you want to dance?” She said yes with no hesitation, stood up right away. Together we sidestepped through messes of chairs to the dance floor. My hands on her shoulders--tense, tender, squeezing her shoulder pads, inches away from the exposed skin of her clavicle. Hers resting light but firm at my hips.
We started to sway and the song ended. Right there, right then. Stu Weitz made an announcement, dessert would be served, please return to your tables. Debbie smiled at me, kindly, charitably. Or maybe she was saying, I got away. But she didn’t, really. The picture’s still in my album, oily with fingerprints, cloudy with memories. No one gets away, Debbie. None of us do.
Matthue Roth is the author of The Gobblings, a picture-book version of Alien,and My First Kafka. By day, he works as a video game designer. He keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.