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  • I am sure he only spoke to me because of my dog. My first dog Karo was a large majestic creature with fiery red fur, smart eyes and a calm and confident demeanor. Karo, who was born in Russia and immigrated with us in the 90s often attracted positive attention from strangers and nostalgic Americans screaming "Lassie!" as well as drive-by compliments about his beauty. His owner on the other hand, was the polar opposite. Meek both in my appearance in demeanor, my goal then was to avoid and repel strangers. I was especially uncomfortable around men due to my lack of experience in talking to them and my desperation in hiding my body under plain, baggy clothes in all efforts to stay invisible and avoid negative attention.

    This is why living in central Brooklyn among Hasidic people was ideal for me at the time. The neighborhood where I lived was still relatively mixed with a large Hasidic population, Eastern European immigrants, and Americans in tow. There was an unsaid rule that the Hasids don't talk to us and we don't talk to them. Until that day, they never did. I was halfway done walking Karo that day when out of nowhere a young man spoke to me. Because this was now about 15 years ago, I will not fill my memory gaps with a made-up story, I will simply summarize the experience. I believe it started out as a comment about my dog, which was not so unusual. What was unusual was that the man was Hasidic.

    I assumed after talking about my celebrity of a dog, the young man would go away as everyone else did. A Hasidic person has never paid attention to my dog in the 10 years I lived in that neighborhood besides this one, so that was shocking in itself. But he did not stop talking there. I remember the conversation being pretty one sided with him doing most of the talking. I was very uncomfortable and was looking down or away as I usually did if a man or a boy spoke to me. At time it was more shocking to me speaking to man at all that it didn't matter as much that he was a Hasidic one. However, he was and I was surprised what he spoke about.

    I do not recall at this point how the conversation wandered there, but the young man spoke about him being Hasidic and how he did not like being forced to dress and live that way. He too, was dressed to blend in with typical Hasidic garb and a heavy beard. My anxiety vanished slightly when I realized he was not an older man but a young one at best, perhaps not much older than me. He went on about his life and how he was not sure what he was going to do going forward. It was a pretty empty corner that day and a pretty distracting dog, so I suppose he felt safe talking to me. Here we were two people dressed in loose colorless garb with every intention to blend in, unhappy with the grey, colorless state of our lives and Karo, the fiery red majestic being between us.

    I knew the restrictions this young man faced and what the sacrifice of leaving his faith would mean. I knew the stories of people leaving that faith and being disowned either through interracial marriage or choosing to bow out of the religion all together. I myself being an atheist for as long as I can remember should have rejoiced in his words, welcomed the conversation with open arms and peddled the religion-free agenda, it was the perfect opportunity. However, the thoughts running through my mind were not of "I told you so" but of pity towards him. He had everything to lose even it meant gaining freedom. He had family and support and a clear path in life. I myself was free to choose my friends and relationships, dress how I wanted and live how I chose and yet, I was just as miserable. I was lonely, shy and uncomfortable, hated myself and my body and usually stayed home while many friends dated, partied and got high.

    I still never really did any of these things and it would take me over a decade to come out of my shell. During senior year of high school I dyed my hair a fiery red, started dressing in different clothes and allowed myself to talk to more people, even boys. But it was not until my late 20s that I finally found passion, adventure, travel, creativity and forged my own path. I now explore NYC and all its fine restaurants, wine bars and theaters with a voracious appetite I longed for 15 years ago. I still own tons of loose grey and black clothes and still don't like clubs and large parties or the attention one might get there. I would choose a night on the couch with my dog Monty over any of those things. I max out my credit cards on plane tickets, not couture and still only go to churches if I am touring them on my travels. Some things did not change, but many things did.

    I think about that young man now and wonder what path he has chosen. All I know is that forging ahead your way is incredibly difficult and it can take years to build the courage to do that whether it means leaving a relationship, moving away or choosing a different career. His choice was much more difficult than most of mine had been. After Karo passed away in 2004 I found myself in a darkness so deep and a loneliness so vast I did not want to go on. This was exacerbated by happy friends who have coupled off, friends who had siblings, faith, or big families as crutches while I had none of these things. I do understand that young man now. I understand what it feels like to know that you will have absolutely nothing and that you have to slowly rebuild a life alone.

    I know what choice I hope he made. The difficult one.


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    Related stories:
    Ode to Wanderlust
    On Being an Atheist
    Why I Keep Changing
    Become Your Dream



    Story 35 of 52 - Random Stories in 2014 and 2015
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