When Life Wasn’t Going Well, I Knew One Person Wouldn’t Sugarcoat Things
In this excerpt from her new memoir ‘On My Knees,’ Periel Aschenbrand finds comfort in a visit from her blunt Israeli cousin
I’d broken up with Noam, my boyfriend of 10 years, and was sleeping with my boss, Nico. I was also living as a squatter in my dead grandmother’s apartment. Needless to say, life was not going well.
The one thing—dare I say it felt like the only thing—I had to look forward to was the recent news that my cousin Roy was coming to visit from Tel Aviv. I hadn’t seen him in ages and the second I got the news, I pried apart the giant bed so he would have a place to sleep. His timing was perfect, which was not utterly surprising; our histories were intertwined and our lives, in many ways, ran parallel since we were infants. Plus, he had just broken up with his girlfriend, so I knew he’d be the perfect shoulder to cry on.
Because I was an only child, Roy was the closest thing I had ever had to a brother. Our mothers were not biological sisters, but they had grown up in the same one-bedroom apartment in Israel. Our respective grandparents had escaped the Holocaust around the same time and arrived in Israel with very little money and, as such, moved in together.
My grandparents had moved to New York when my mother was 13. Roy’s mother, Talma, stayed in Israel but she and my mother kept in touch. Roy and I were born the same year, one month apart. My parents took me to Israel for the first time when I was 3 years old and from then on, we went back every summer and we always stayed with Roy and his parents, Talma and Yochanan. They were as much my family as my own. They had a beautiful house in the suburbs outside Tel Aviv with the most amazing backyard and garden I had ever seen. Growing up, it was my home away from home. Because of this connection to a faraway land, I always felt like I had something special, something that other people didn’t have. I’m not sure what it was—maybe roots, or history, or a unique connection to a foreign place, maybe all of the above. Israel was the polar opposite of New York but I always felt at home there and unlike in New York, I was free to roam about. Even as a kid, I could walk alone outside without having to worry that I would be kidnapped and I could walk barefoot without having to worry that I would step on an AIDS-infected needle. Wildflowers grew everywhere and the scent of honeysuckle was so strong that it made me dizzy. The sun was always shining, you could go to the beach almost year-round, and the food was the freshest I had ever tasted.
I thought Israel was a magical place and when I was there, I didn’t have a care in the world. And as long as there were no bombs going off it was a magical place, but as a little girl I didn’t know about things like suicide bombers and precarious political situations. I only knew that there was the sea and the earth and the flowers and I had Talma and Yochanan’s backyard and I had Roy, my partner in crime.
Also, my mother had insisted that I attend a Hebrew day school and since I was born, she only spoke to me in Hebrew, so by the time I was about 6 years old, I was pretty fluent and could converse freely, which only strengthened my bond with Roy and his parents.
Because we were the same age and we were inseparable, everyone thought we were twins. We took all our family vacations together and we went everywhere from Disney World to the Austrian Alps. When we were old enough, our parents foolishly put Roy and me in our own hotel room and we would stay up for hours, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and just generally getting in all sorts of trouble. Once we made a “spa” and flooded a hotel room. But the biggest mess we made was in Munich, when we were 16 and our parents left us alone on New Year’s Eve. To celebrate, we lit firecrackers. Problem was, we were inside and nearly burned down the building. All this is to say that even though we lived on opposite ends of the earth, almost all of my most vivid childhood memories involve Roy and his parents.
When we were 18 and left home for college, I moved to Arizona and Roy moved to New York, where he became like my parents’ surrogate child. By the time I had moved into my grandmother’s, it had been several years since we’d seen each other—the longest we had ever gone.
The second Roy walked into my grandmother’s apartment, he took a quick look around and was like, “What the fuck is going on here? I can’t believe you are living like this. What’s wrong with you?”
I filled him in on what a nightmare my life had become and I spared no details. We sat up for hours and drank whiskey and talked and talked and talked. I figured that given the fact that he had just gone through his own breakup, he would be particularly understanding. But Roy is Israeli, which means, among other things, he pulls no punches. He gave it to me straight and he didn’t sugarcoat it. He said, “For starters, it’s a good thing you broke up with Noam. He was a nice guy, but it was obvious that it was never going to work out. And this bullshit with Nico has got to end. Now.”
This may sound harsh and maybe it was, but it was also extremely helpful. I needed a good kick in the ass. And just being around Roy made me feel better. His sheer presence reminded me who I was, where I came from, and I started to have faith that I could become whole again.
The night before he went back to Israel, we went out and got shitfaced. On our way home, at like 3:00 in the morning, we were starving, so we stopped at Papaya Dog. I’ve lived in New York on and off my whole life and had never even stepped foot inside Papaya Dog. It has a very nice healthy-sounding name, which is incredibly misleading because Papaya Dog may well be the most disgusting place on earth. They serve cheap hotdogs that are long and skinny and probably made out of cow anus. But we were trashed and starving and happy to be reunited. We swore that night, over grape soda, that we would never go so long again without seeing each other. By the time Roy went back to Israel, I was in much better shape. In many ways, his visit saved me.
From On My Knees by Periel Aschenbrand (c) Periel Aschenbrand. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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