I Thought About Killing You.
by Gregorio Tfoya
He was a Christian. It always surprised his students to hear that. Pupils questioning. Quizzical, wrinkled noses. Interrogatingly flat foreheads with fronced brows. Their lips forming the opening to “But, I thought….”
Usually he told them, if they asked, at the end of the term as they turned in their final exams. Or, if they lingered outside the classroom inquiring about rounding and curves.
Normally, it was his World Religions class that was most inquisitive. A “What are you?” coming out within the first five minutes of syllabus skimming. He had a stock answer readied: “Male. Married. A little hungry.” The hungry part wasn’t true. But some of the kids snorted. More at the inexactness of their peer’s question than at his own, tired humor.
Of course, someone would ask a follow-up. Sometimes the original questioner. Sometimes not. If not, he felt bad about shooting the original student down.
But the second question always came, in variations of political correctness:
“What are your personal religious beliefs?”
“What faith do you identify with?”
Or, his favorite:
“Where does your orientation find you in terms of spirituality?”
Generally, this last version of the question was asked not by the first brave questioner.
His answer was always the same: “Due to the academic nature of this class, I do not want to color your perspective one way or the other, so I will be respectfully unrevealing in this realm.”
People would slump. Sigh. Shake their heads. Once, he heard a: “What a jib.”
But then, some third questioner, or second, would ask about the end of the term. Like it was a loophole he’d just found in his professor logic.
“If you are still curious by term’s end, I may be more illuminating, but I promise you, I’m not that interesting.”
The original questioner would ask someone next to him what illuminating meant, in this context.
Interest would always wane once they covered Judaism. Sometimes before then, if some sleuth of a student happened to find out the other class he was teaching every term was Hebrew. Then the case of the ambiguous-faith religion teacher would be cracked. Or so they thought.
It could have happened earlier, too. If anybody bothered to actually read the syllabus, they’d see his Ph.D. came from Tel-Aviv.
Until then, during the lectures of the Eastern Religions, one student would always orally submit his answer mid-lecture:
Like it was written in the unread syllabus that extra credit could be earned by correctly identifying their instructor’s religious “orientation.” He normally only acknowledged those who submitted “Jainist” or “Sikhist” or “Hinduist,” saying, it’s just “Jain,” “Sikh,” “Hindu.”
But his fluency in Hebrew was a red herring. Much like the other false clues he’d leave them throughout the class. The pictures in his PowerPoint of the Hindu men he lived with in India, taken during one of the three different stints that he lived there. Or, when they covered Islam at the end of the term, he’d casually drop in that, when he lived with Sunnis in Afghanistan, all he could stomach was the hummus.
So it was fair to see the shock spread across their faces when he admitted his Christianity. His appearance didn’t help much either.
Living nomadically, he’d grown accustomed to a beard. And now he just kept it, not out of some Samsonian facial tribute, but just ‘cause. At its pointiest, his faux-nomad beard stopped at his sternum. And it wasn’t just ‘cause. He kept his beard because the relics of hair on his head were getting scarcer by the months. He still had some vestige of vanity—about equivalent to the hair on his head.
What he didn’t tell his community college World Religions class was that he was also an Uber driver. Learning that information about their Ph.D. holding instructor would truly be soul crushing, he thought.
He’d picked up the “side gig,” as his thirteen-year-old called it, when they lived in Paris. He had been a visiting scholar for langues anciennes at the Sorbonne. It was the most prestigious post he’d probably ever attain, even if it was just for the last half of 2015.
They lived in a squalid, little subsidized pension off the Rue De Vaugirard. It was beautiful. His ten-year-old, at the time, loved to get lost in Le Jardin de Luxemboug. His mother was always concerned, but a trusting concern. Sometimes, he’d go with them and watch them play their elaborate game of hide and seek.
His second favorite place was Saint-Sulpice. It was the facades and frescoes that drew him in. Often, he’d just take a flaneur northwest from their walk-up until he arrived there. Delacroix fascinated him. His two large murals in the Chapelle des Anges were amazing.
But he didn’t get to go to Le Jardin de Luxemboug or Saint-Sulpice often enough. When he wasn’t instructing Hebrew across Blvd. Saint Michel, he was driving their complimentary, compact sedan around the city.
Even with the subsidized pension and free car, his wife’s translation royalties arbitrarily trickling in, and his Sorbonne salary, this was still Paris. Besides, the Sorbonne salary was pro-rated for a half a year, and they still had student debt.
He and his wife met as undergrads at Azusa Pacific. They were both the oldest people in their Women of the Old Testament course, he twenty-six and already having lived in India three times, Afghanistan twice, Nepal once.
She was twenty-five. Her parents were South American missionaries. She’d lived everywhere in South America. Spoke French, Spanish, and Portuguese and had taught English in Belize before moving to her birth state of California to attend school.
She was a nice girl. Too pretty to even think about, so how she’d chosen the seat next to him was a divine miracle.
They rarely spoke, until near the end of the term, when she had brought a Simone Weil book along, in the original French. It sat between them, on the table they shared, like an invitation.
He told the back of her ring-less hand, after class, that he’d always wanted to read the work Leibniz wrote in French. Read Descartes in the original. Read Revue des Étudesjuives.
She told him she was free from three to four for French lessons, which was not even a result he could ever dream about happening from their brief conversation, but it’s what happened.
For the rest of the year they sat together in classes—Survey of Biblical Literature I and II, THEO 203: Baptist Heritage, even a non-Theological economics course. And she tutored him in the library in French.
At the end of the year, their knees touched over a tricky passage in Discours de la Méthode, and they stayed touching even after she’d deciphered it for him. When their hour was up, she told him:
“You should ask me to the ice-cream social.”
“What ice-cream social?” he said honestly.
“Any,” And he knew she was making fun of him, but he liked it.
They went out for yogurt. Afterwards, she tugged his beard and told him he should kiss her on the cheek. He complied.
So living in Paris had been as much her idea as his. She translated Christian books into French, Spanish, Portuguese. But not Joyce Meyer. Those were handled by the conglomerates. Her oeuvre was more artisanal. Obscure, you’d say, if you didn’t love her. Actually, a couple of the writers she worked with were people they had gone to school with.
Sometimes, she would work with an author of some prominence, unbeknownst to said author. She would translate one of their books that had already been recently translated. She told him, “There is no such thing as a definitive translation.”
Every translation being a never-ending series; a version of the truth. Which was another fascinating aspect about his beautiful wife—translating books whose chief claim was their irrevocable truths under her belief of truth’s fluidity.
She told him she’d learned that translation philosophy from Borges. Had read him as a teenage girl living in Argentina, sneaking his books under her father’s nose and into his house.
She was the fiction reader in their household. He rarely had time for fiction. He barely had time for Massora by Elias Levita these days. However, he had read his wife’s translation of Borges’s “The Gospel According to Mark,” and it had pleased him while giving him the chills at the same time.
That his wife could have worked with such borderline heresy. It made him look at her with even wider-eyed fascination. Love.
After reading it, he told her he understood why’d she had to be such a rebellious reader in her Argentine youth. To this day, he pretended that he was going to tattle-tale to her father about his daughter’s teenage reading proclivities. He picked that up from her. Teasing.
She loved less heretical writers too. Read Gideon by Marilyn Robinson once a year. He read that too, not once a year, but every five. She was always trying to get him to read Primo Levi’s fiction. Chiam Potok. Elie Wiesel. It was funny, he was the Hebrew scholar, but she read the popular Jewish literature.
Now they were reading the book of Ruth together, in English. First they read it in the King James, then the New International Reader’s Version. They both agreed that they preferred the sound of Ruth 2:10 in the NIrV over the KJV. Maybe Ruth’s declaration “I’m from another country” sounded more relevant than the KJV’s “I’m a stranger.”
They were unanimous also in their preference for the NIrV’s Ruth 4:13. That was romance for them.
When his wife had suggested they read Ruth, she’d done it in her sly, teasing way:
“You were always too distracted by my fingernails anyways, when we covered Ruth in class.”
A truth he could neither confirm nor deny. She still wore that marvelous purple polish.
Tonight was a Thursday. Mark Twain’s alleged coldest winter was over. It was October. Like most nights “side-gigging,” it took him into the city. Often times, an airport trip brought him north from San Mateo. Sometimes an airport trip would take him east too, once he was in the city, across the Bay Bridge, toward Oakland.
Even with the thirty to fifty dollar fare from the city to Oakland, riders still said it was cheaper to fly out of there than SFO. The Oakland airport was nicer in his opinion too. Cleaner.
He’d picked up a rider arriving at SFO and driven him all the way to a building behind the Federal Reserve. Good fare. A banker. Talked on his phone the whole ride.
It was still early but just dark. This was a good place for ferrying red-eye departures out of Oakland, so he circled the glass-front Fidelity building a few times, but it bare no fruit. Or more like he was always just a hair too slow on his touchscreen pickings.
Driving out of the financial district, he picked up a fare by the Art Institute. And the rider didn’t want to go to Haight-Asbury—a strange miracle—but wanted an address he didn’t recognize.
He picked the young man up and felt bad about stereotyping him as a hippie artist. Clean-shaven, Princeton cut, tall, and yes, Caucasian, with a backpack that he held in his lap protectively.
Because he didn’t know the destination, he didn’t pay much attention to his rider, focusing on getting his bearings on the digital grid and physical one.
After a couple minutes, his passenger said, not un-aggressively:
“Do you want some advice?”
“Sure,” he said gently.
“You’re new at this right?” his passenger asked accusingly.
“Well, three things. Get some snacks. M&M’s maybe, but not the peanut kind. Allergies. Get some bottled water. The little stubby ones are perfect. And get a gun or a knife. But know how to use it.”
The last piece came out not menacingly, but it was alerting. He studied his passenger before replying. His face did have a pained and conflicted look to it. A distracted quality of despair. And he was clutching the laptop in his backpack pretty tight.
“That’s good advice, but I think I’m alright on the last one,” he replied evenly.
“I’m serious man,” his passenger said, looking out the front windshield scoutingly, “this is a dangerous job you do, you need to protect yourself.”
The young man’s tone had softened, a little, so it didn’t come off as a threat. But there was still something biting to his syllables. Something unusual to his sitting posture.
“Well, I’ll put my faith in God. He’ll protect me.”
The man snorted. The snort seemed to jolt him out of his window shield gazing. His adversarial tone returned: “You’re one of those huh? You think God is gonna protect you, do you?”
“If he wants me to be protected, yes.” Trying to diffuse any aggression in the air.
The man just shook his head and snorted again. He relented a little on his backpack vice grip, like his hands and arms were in too much disbelief to function.
After a silent minute, a minute he’d assumed meant their speaking terms were through, the man said mockingly: “You didn’t see my shirt when I got into your car, did you?”
He had not seen the young man’s shirt. He’d been too busy taking directions from his phone.
The man set his backpack on the middle seat with some ceremony, spread his arms out and straightened up.
His shirt was black. It had a silver goat with exaggerated horns and a tail. A golden pentagram surrounded it. But the most striking feature was the calligraphy lettering running along the bottom, also in gold.
Even through his rearview mirror he could decipher it. It was three Hebrew sixes. Right to left to left. It looked like a cursive letter M with a curl up front.
He thought of two things: Delacroix’s rendering of Mephistopheles, and why he had associated his passenger’s clean-shaven appearance with virtue. Absurd, when he himself wore a graying, unruly beard.
With a neutral voice, he asked his young passenger: “Are you a Luciferian?” He was unsure if that term was still in fashion.
“A Satanist,” was his acidic reply.
They didn’t cover Satanism in his World Religions course.
The rest of the ride was silence. He wasn’t sure where they could go from there. Not sure if it was appropriate to small talk about Satanism, “So, how’d you get into that?” like it was a genre of music.
In fact, maybe music was a solution to the paling silence between them. He rarely turned the radio on when he was driving for Uber, not wanting to offend anybody with his un-coolness. His non-hipness. Ruin his 4.998 rating over his musical ignorance.
But he flipped it on now. Pretty sure his rating was smoke already anyway. He scanned the stations. Commercials. He stopped it on the first thing that sounded like music. Soft. Slow. Spoken word. But the words were more uncomfortable than the silence.
A man contemplating pre-mediated murder. Suicide. How he loved himself more than he loved the object of his pre-meditations. Crazy.
And it would be too awkward to turn the dial now, because his passenger’s interest seemed piqued. Great, he thought, I’ve found the only Satanist station in the Bay Area. What were the odds? Maybe you could only get this frequency with a Satanist in the backseat.
Thankfully, it turned into a rap song. He could feel the Satanist’s disgust. He went back to his pre-radio veering out the backseat window, clutching his backpack. The JanSport lettering was Sharpied out. Now, his eye wanted to pick up on these little clues of the occult.
He’d never been grateful for rap music before, but he was now. He took the liberty to turn the radio off to no objection.
Their destination approached. It was a neighborhood, but still a main thoroughfare. There was a synagogue on the corner, three Hasidic Jews, and a providential parking spot right against the curb in front of them.
He and his passenger got out of the vehicle at the same time. His passenger because, evidently, this was close enough to his final destination. He, because it wasn’t every night you ran into Hasidic Jews in the city. Plus, the air was much less stifling outside than in his sedan right now.
He greeted the Hasidic Jews in Hebrew, and they didn’t seem surprised. They returned his salutation and asked him where he was from. Where had he learned such beautiful Hebrew. He told them about his studies in Tel-Aviv, and they nodded solemnly. Then their eyes shifted from side-to-side, from him to his passenger—who was, inexplicably, lingering about, listening. The Hasidic Jews had seen his shirt.
In English, he told them he was an Uber driver. Even solemner nods. The oldest—grayest beard, longest curls—asked his fare if he knew the significance of the calligraphy on his shirt.
“Yes, they are Greek sixes, three of them,” he said confidently.
The bravest Jew continued: “No, no, that is Hebrew, sir,” chuckling, “You are wearing a pagan shirt with Hebrew numbers.”
“Really?” the young Satanist said, intrigued.
“Yes, young man. It is a very interesting shirt. May I proceed in assuming you are a Satanist?”
“If I may proceed in assuming you are a Jew,” the young Satanist said, not with his usual vitriol, but almost with a smile in his eyes.
The elder Hasidic Jew chuckled, “Yes, you are spot on, young man. Spot on.”
“Orthodox Jews?” the young Satanist motioned with his finger to the three Hasidic Jews.
“No, we are Hasidic,” the same wise Jew replied.
“What’s the difference?” the Satanist eyed semi-suspiciously.
“Oh, we tend not to focus on our differences. We like to focus on our own qualities.”
“And what might those be?” inquired the Satanist, genuinely.
“The imminence of God in existence, a trusting heart, and enthusiasm hitlahuvut,” he said the Hebrew word with a nod and wink to him, the Uber driver, and “Enthusiasm is one of my favorite of the Hasidic virtues.”
The young Satanist looked moved.
Already, the Uber driver could not wait to tell his wife of this strange encounter, and the Satanist’s next words were even more surprising and unexpected.
“Do you guys drink? There is a quiet bar down the street where we can talk more.” The Satanist addressed all of them, the three Hasidic Jews, him—the Uber driver—as if he had been contributing to the conversation in any meaningful way.
He didn’t drink. But he didn’t have time to state this, because the eldest Hasidic Jew spoke:
“I have an idea. Why don’t we retire to my house? It isn’t far, and my wife is preparing fish.”
He never thought a Hasidic Jew would outdo a Satanist in terms of shock value, but he was floored. Again, he, the Uber driver, was included in this “we”.
The Satanist seemed to take to this. He agreed, even before the eldest Hasidic Jew mentioned, “Oh, and we might have a thing or two to drink.”
The younger Hasidic Jews shook hands with their elder, nodding at both the Satanist and himself. They must have had other fish dinners to attend to.
The eldest Hasidic Jew told him his car would be safe there. He hadn’t even agreed to go along, but somehow the man had divined that he would.
Of course he went along, running on sheer fascination. For once, he wanted to fascinate his own beautiful wife with an exotic tale.
Walking behind the synagogue, the streets turned full residential. His mind traveled to the parallel reality of the three of them walking into a bar. A Christian, a Jew, and a Satanist—all the usual suspects for a poor joke.
He smiled to himself as the Satanist introduced himself to the Hasidic Jew with a handshake. The young Satanist said his name was Geoffrey. The Hasidic Jew returned his handshake and said his name was Jacob Isaac, named after his great-great-great-grandfather from Poland.
In turn, they shook his hand.
“Gregory,” he said, giving them his name.
Jacob Isaac’s house was Hasidic. That’s not a style of architecture, but it was now. Forever Gregory would associate that style of architecture with that man.
It was modestly furnished—a multi-color brown sofa, a matching loveseat, a simple, classic wood coffee table, and a welcome smell. The dining room was to the left and behind the loveseat.
Jacob Isaac’s wife was Rachel. “Mrs. Rachel,” as her husband referred to her. He had told them to take a seat at the dining room table and disappeared behind the small door, presumably leading to the kitchen.
Their Hasidic host returned with three tumblers, and his wife followed shortly with Everclear and deep-red juice in a jar: R.W. Knodely. She squeezed her husband’s hand and said the fish would be out shortly. She’d already eaten.
The good host poured Geoffrey the Satanist a stiff amount of Everclear, adding some juice. He poured himself an equally stiff drink after offering Gregory some juice, again, seeing into his soul and knowing that he did not imbibe alcohol. Or, it could have just been because he’d seen him operating a motor vehicle not ten minutes ago.
The juice was sharp and bitter, a distinct no blend cranberry. He could only imagine it with Everclear—which was apparently kosher, in the original fastening of that word. The fish was sole, herbed and baked, flaky and scrumptious.
The conversation was a brief history of the modern Hasidic movement founded by Israel ben Eliezer, Baal Shem-Tob “Master of the Holy Name”.
“It was a bit of a spiritual revolution,” Jacob Isaac remarked. Geoffrey the Satanist liked that.
Their good host continued about Ben Eliezer’s dissatisfied youth: his incompliance with the rigid and the rational and his attraction to the mystical and the spiritual.
“He was a bit of a miracle worker.”
Jacob Isaac went on to expound upon his parables. His mystic expositions.
“Baal Shem’s focus was not on the individual, on asceticism, stoicism, withdrawal, but on the activities of living in community.” He paused over a drink, his second. “Such as the partaking of food.” Smiles from all sides.
It was a scene. Geoffrey the Satanist was pretty drunk, and Jacob Isaac wasn’t keeping up with him, but he wasn’t relenting on his drink either. The conversation became looser. Somewhere along the way Geoffrey the Satanist asked a question about dreidel, the Hanukah game.
Jacob Isaac explained its origins. When the Jews were under Greek rule, they were forbidden from studying the Talmud and forbidden from speaking their language. So they had to devise a cover for their children’s clandestine readings.
In the Greek caves they would study their Hebrew, and when the guards would come on patrol, the books would go into hiding, and the toys would come out. They would spin their tops and whistle until the guards past—biding time until it was safe to pull the books back out.
“Now we commemorate that tradition through dreidel.”
Gregory thought of his rebellious wife, sneaking her Borges in dark Argentine places. He’d heard her whistle before too. Maybe he should buy her a dreidel and they could play together.
As if the pleasure of the memories of his wife were visible on his face, Geoffrey the Satanist asked him how long he’d been married.
Geoffrey asked Jacob Isaac the same question.
And he thought he knew the answer to Geoffrey the Satanist’s angst. The angst that had been written on his face since he’d first examined him in the backseat of his car. An only story love angst.
Maybe it was the sight of the loving devotion evident between Hasidic husband and wife spurring his next question—a plea for advice really.
“My girlfriend and I recently broke-up,” he said with a heavy sigh.
Jacob Isaac asked, “Is she also a Satanist?”
“Yes, yes,” young Geoffrey replied, “that’s not the problem.”
“I only ask because many a relationship has been broken over being the wrong religion.”
“Yes, I understand,” Geoffrey somberly said, “The problem was, uh, exclusivity. She believed in, well, uh, open borders.”
Though that was a hot-button political issue of the day, of all days probably, he knew Geoffrey the Satanist was referring to monogamy, not immigration. And Jacob Isaac did too.
“And you desired a monogamous relationship, have I got it right?”
“Yes, yes,” Geoffrey sputtered, “I don’t know what to do.”
After a slight pause, Jacob Isaac stated, “Well, what we value in a relationship says a lot about the value we esteem in ourselves.”
Jacob Isaac’s words weren’t a direct answer to the young Satanist’s question, but a change came over him all the same. He appeared a different man. The melancholy lifted.
It truly was fascinating to Gregory. That a Satanist, a Jew, and a Christian could all desire the same thing: an intimate, monogamous relationship with another human being.
Their night came to a close. The Everclear was less than half full and the juice jar was drained.
Gregory thanked their wise and generous host and excused himself. His host told him to drop by anytime. He said he would.
Before he could leave, young Geoffrey asked him to wait up. He shook their host’s hand, thanked him for his generosity, and Jacob Isaac repeated his open-ended invitation. Geoffrey gathered his backpack, the one he had kept under his seat the whole night, and said he would stop by again sometime.
It was after midnight, so Gregory the Uber driver figured the young man needed another ride. On the walk back to the car, he asked him if he needed the ride. No charge.
“No, thank you. I need to walk.”
Before they got to the car, Geoffrey told him: “You don’t know what you’ve done.”
He hadn’t said much all night. Mainly listened. So he figured it was his silence that was appreciated. Happy his fifteen years of marriage could be of service.
“I’m sure you will find the right person.”
“No, you don’t understand.”
They were at the car now, on the sidewalk where they had met the three Hasidic Jews, in front of the Synagogue.
Geoffrey swung his backpack gently around in front of his shirt. Unzipped it.
He knew what it was without knowing it. Like you know the Cyrillic alphabet without reading Greek. Like you know German words without speaking German. Like you know rap music without knowing the first thing about rap.