Come Dance with Me, Mary
by Ted Richer
I would ever go and stand in the forlorn quiet of the All Youth Center. I could find the image of myself there, so young and so long ago, waiting for the whiteness of winter to end, to end forever; the great and despairing hall, emptied of my older childhood, standing dismal and sharing my grief, a symbol to me, after Mary, of what was true and what was false.
I could stand in that place, and I could become one with myself, and I could become
one with her. I could reach out and touch the blackness of her hair, touch the shadow of her face — say Mary, Mary, Mary, come dance with me, Mary, and I could find the image of the dance, wondrously, see the image of the grace, so quick and so at ease, and suddenly I could find the center of her soul, Mary, Mary, Mary.
At the end of each summer I would make my way back to the All Youth Center. I came from far places, and from no place—perhaps from learning, and I came to see the lonely form of my father, and to give him rest. I would make my visit with a solemn face, and then, the night before I left, after having listened too long to my father curse over my life, I would find my way to that dark building. No dances, then. The time of school would be away, and I would stand alone.
Mary had been my life once. I found in her the world, and I was totally dazzled. I told
myself I had only a crush on a very lovely Catholic girl; I told myself, and I told myself: I am Jewish and she is Catholic, and there shall be no
love. She cannot be loved, I told myself, and the winter came up about us, heavy with snowdrift and strong with wind, fearful falling snow,
so bitter and so white, and the streets were empty and I felt frozen — frozen in ice. I walked beside her as we left the All Youth Center,
our hands trembling together in the cold, and she talked, again, about her church — and she asked me, once more, to come and visit.
“Please,” she said, “I want you to hear the priest.”
“I will not be Catholic,” I said.
Before the strangeness of her house I kissed her goodnight. She turned, opened the door, turned back:
In my memory I am always caught with Mary’s face, saying please. I see it pale and
tight, a face drawn into itself, a whisper saying please. Her eyes were sharp and darting, eyes as black as the blackness of her
hair. Black against white, in her face, and I found it all very beautiful, and I loved — Oh how I loved! — the sounding of her please.
She would, she would say, love only a Catholic. Please.
I would not go to her church. I would not want love in Mary’s way. I told myself I had only
a crush and that I, in spite of what I said and how I acted, must remain a Jew. I understood, long before and long after, that my Jewishness called me chosen, and although the rabbi had given up talking to me, I secretly knew that he secretly sought me. He would slyly, I would imagine, talk to my father about me; but my father, so bluntly, once said:
“The rabbi told me you told him there is no God.”
“I tried to tell him — but he wouldn’t listen.”
My father was usually an angry man with me. Yet there were times when he found the patience of a prophet, forcibly keeping the anger within him, firmly pronouncing the wiseness of the ages; yet there were times when his anger spitted out:
“You will die alone,” he said.
“Not if I become a Catholic,” I said.
My father kept a heavy beard, and his large gray eyes were often frightening. His voice was strong, vigorous. He held his fist against my face.
“Then you will surely die alone!” he roared.
“I didn’t say I would become a Catholic,” I said.
My father, then, smiled, the anger gone.
“The girl is very pretty,” he said.
I could feel myself blush.
“What girl?” I asked.
My father was suddenly struck with overwhelming laughter.
“There is no God you tell the rabbi,” he said, pointing his finger to the door. “Go, Jew,” he laughed, “now go tell the priest!”
I left the house. The winter sprang up to meet me, and I tried to shove it back. I flailed
my arms against the cold — struck and struck again, and I felt the tears of my life in my eyes, and I slipped to the snow. I cried, my face buried in the snow, I cried, Mary, Mary, Mary.
Out of the winter I sought shelter in the library. I sat in distant corners, religious
books of black against my body, reading of the soul. The soul is . . .
I placed my pencil against the paper and I wrote my poem:
The soul is . . .
And Saturday night I would find my place in the All Youth Center. I would go early, and stay late. I would walk about the dancers and find the image of Mary. I would nod to her and pass my way, waiting. I would scan the ceiling of that grimy building and end the winter. I am Jewish, I would think, to that high wall, but here I am free. All of youth, you proclaim, all of youth together, free, locked always in one another’s arms. No God to end our love, I would think, no God to divide and divide: all are here as one, all are chosen, to dance, to love, and the summer sun is in our hearts.
I would make a monument of that building. I would enshrine it forever and make my yearly pilgrimage. I swore to that high wall, wailing with all the grief of my Jewish past, that I would return and return, to pay homage. I found in the symbol of that bleak and awful place the meaning of the soul.
“Come dance with me, Mary.”
I understood, even then, that it was only the All Youth Center that held us together. Without it, when the youthful time of it would pass, then Mary would be gone. I did not love a very lovely Catholic girl: I loved the two of us together in the All Youth Center.
One day, when the world could be no worse, I found my way to the rabbi. He gently nodded a smile, and I sat in his dark house on a hard, wooden, straight chair. His great white head talked in prayer, it seemed to me then, and he asked about the good health of my father. His hands were frail, so old, and he held them, gripped, for all time.
“Rabbi, I have a question.”
“Do you know the priest, or father, or whatever he is, at Holy Name?”
“I know the man.”
“Rabbi, he would like me to visit his church.”
“Is it right, I mean.”
“I go to visit,” said the rabbi. “Do I do wrong?”
“I mean . . .”
“There is a girl that wants to convert me.”
The rabbi jumped from his seat.
“What is this?” he shouted.
I stood up, to face him.
“If I go to the church, will they convert me?”
The rabbi groaned.
“I have been there,” he said. “No one converted me. What kind of Jew are you?”
“I am a Jew who does not believe in God,” I said.
The rabbi shook his great white head, sighing:
“There is nothing to convert,” he said. “Go home and cry in your sleep.”
I crawled through the streets of my wintertime, thinking of the challenge I had before me. I felt raw and mean and discouraged. I took myself into the library, and I read from another black book:
My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord,
Neither spurn thou His correction;
For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth,
Even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.
Whoso loveth knowledge loveth correction;
But he that is brutish hateth reproof.
Correct thy son, and he will give thee rest;
Yea, he will give delight unto thy soul.
I would be the son, I told myself. I do not give my father delight, and I do not give my
father rest. My father must help me. I slowly left the library, miserably dragging the gloom of myself home.
I said to my father:
“I need correction.”
My father answered:
“We all do.”
I felt my mouth go dry.
“I must know something,” I said.
My father looked.
My eyes became wet.
“Did you always believe in God?”
My father waited in his answer.
“Yes,” he said.
I nodded, went upstairs and tried to sleep.
The time of my challenge waited ahead. I began by writing a letter to the priest, helplessly
tore it up, burned the words. I dialed the telephone number of Holy Name — but panicked at the sound of a voice. Early one morning, before school, I stood in the cold and fading dark and stared long at the high Catholic structure. I tried to know why I should be so frightened of it. I stepped closer, at last to enter, then backed away, then felt a hand upon my arm.
“You may go in.”
I turned—and the priest was there. He stood so thin, so white. I looked away.
“Did you want to go in?” he asked.
Then I faced him.
“Father, I came to tell you there is no God.”
“So you are Mary’s friend,” he smiled.
“No God!” I shouted.
“Come inside with me, son, and I will show you God.”
“No God!” I shouted, and I began running, began running away.
“Bless you, son!” he shouted, and I heard the distant, oh so distant, sound of that prayer as I turned the corner, running away.
The Saturday night that followed, there in the dim safety of the All Youth Center, she came
again to dance with me, her face so drawn, so tired, her being so distressed, and I almost wanted to surrender. I will go, I thought of
saying, to hear the priest, to hear the sound of your church, to hear the sound of a Catholic. I will go and tell the priest there is no God, once more.
She suddenly stopped dancing.
“I will not see you again,” she said.
“I will not see you again.”
“I will not see you again.”
I held her tight, kissed her face.
“You . . . Jew!” she screamed, pushing me away. “I will not see you again!”
In the center of the All Youth Center her scream extended, upward and out, a shrilling, trembling cry across the floor and into the faces of all those who crowded about. A strange sigh broke forth in the empty silence that followed, and then she screamed once more. I reached out to touch her, to comfort her.
“Please!” she said, and she was gone.
The dancers left. I became alone. In the face of that great and despairing hall, I found the image of what was true and what was false. I saw myself, like the God that divided the world, cut in two. My heart pained. My being broke. I cried.
All of youth, you proclaim, and I scratched my anger on the face of that dismal building — and thus secured my place forever. I made one, sweeping, dramatic salute, and then I stumbled out into the snowstorm of my life.
I could not take correction. My father could not take delight in his son and find rest. I could
only take myself to far places, and to no place, where I could only cry myself to sleep, knowing I could only die alone. I could only return and return,
burdened with my vow to pay homage, to the All Youth Center, where I could only cry Mary, Mary, Mary, come dance with me, Mary.