An Exhilarating Sense of Escape
Photo courtesy of Andrew Duany
Our February goop Book Club pick is The Orchard: a big, ambitious coming-of-age story about an intellectually curious high schooler named Ari Eden. Before his senior year, Ari and his family move from an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn to Zion Hills, a showy Miami suburb where his new peers are much less focused on studying the Torah and dress nothing like him. In Zion Hills, Ari is befriended by his next-door neighbor, Noah—golden-boy star of the basketball team. It’s a friendship that makes no sense to Ari at first and one that places him inside the school’s most exclusive circle of charismatic characters. Over the course of the school year, the group is shaped by a series of secrets, attempts at romance, and the dark, genius mind of their sometime leader Evan, who pushes them to test their faith in unconventional and ultimately life-altering ways.
This excerpt is from near the beginning of the book, when Ari finds out that he’s headed to Florida. After you read it, head to our Book Club hub for a reading guide and a Q&A with the author, David Hopen, then check out our Facebook group and tune in on March 1 at 4 p.m. PT for a live chat with Hopen.
From The Orchard
There’s a poem I like by Jane Kenyon. It’s three stanzas, ten lines, rather somber. The poem’s called “In the Nursing Home”; it likens aging to a wild horse running tight circles that grow smaller, smaller, until eventually they cease. As a teenager, I felt this neatly encapsulated the suffocation of my childhood, the trackless wasteland of tightening circles I inhabited. I felt sometimes as if I existed alone, outside the external world, bearing no true relation to anyone or anything, as if the invisible harnesses that tethered humans to their surroundings had, in my case, come undone. I was accustomed to living unmoored, inured to rappelling through a shrinking reality with neither rope nor anchor. This was all I knew: gazing out at the coming night, alone, waiting diligently, like Kenyon’s horse, to be retrieved by some force—any force—that could reinsert me into my own life.
My parents broke the news in February, amid dull snow.
“Aryeh,” my father started, nervously setting down his utensils on the table, dabbing his napkin at the corner of his mouth. “Imma and I have something to discuss with you.”
We had quiet meals. I was an only child; my mother would serve and we three would dutifully attempt small talk before lapsing into silence. Most families we knew were overrun by hordes of children in small houses—Shimon, for instance, had seven siblings—and though mostly I enjoyed being on my own, I wondered on occasion whether living amid commotion could relieve my solitude.
My father cleared his throat. “I lost my job.”
Sadness washed over me, seeing his embarrassed look, the way my mother fixated on a spot of dirt on the floor, the snow falling gray and bleak through the windows. At first I said nothing, willing my silence to transmit commiseration, not apathy. “They fired you?” I asked, probably insensitively, when I thought of something to say.
“Not technically.” Again he cleared his throat, this time for momentum. “It’s folding, the firm, at the end of the summer.”
Four men in a cramped, poorly lit back office in Flatbush, I couldn’t help but think, did not a firm make. “The whole—operation?”
“These are difficult times, Ari, what with the state of the economy and all.” Sure, I nodded, the economy. “Mr. Weintraub says he can’t afford to keep us running anymore.”
“This was all I knew: gazing out at the coming night, alone, waiting diligently, like Kenyon’s horse, to be retrieved by some force—any force—that could reinsert me into my own life.”
“Dreadful,” my mother insisted, playing with the tablecloth, “isn’t it, Aryeh?”
“I’m sorry, Abba,” I said. And, truly, I was: my father was proud, decent, content to function on little sleep, resolved never to miss minyan, never to use a sick day, never to complain about the fact that a considerable percentage of the little money he scraped together went directly toward paying my tuition. He was not, in my view, someone deserving of humiliation.
“I’m sure you’ll find something soon?”
“The thing is, Aryeh,” he said, “there’s not much else around here.”
I played with the rim of my glass of water. “Maybe Mr. Weintraub can help find you something?”
“He’s out of a job, too, nebach. But I did get an offer through one of Uncle Norman’s business contacts.”
“Uncle Norman?” My father’s eldest brother was a heavy, balding figure known for peddling disastrous investments: a grimy kosher steakhouse that survived two months, a fledgling Laundromat in Queens, a company that sold malfunctioning vacuum cleaners. My father, like most sensible members of his family, made a habit of steering clear of Norman. “You trust anyone associated with Uncle Norman?”
“No Lashon Hara.” He paused. “But, not really, no. Mr. Weintraub, however, is an honorable man. And Mr. Weintraub vouches for this person.”
“Oh,” I said unsurely, glancing at my mother for some explanation of my father’s urgency, “wonderful, then.” My mother, in turn, smiled patiently.
“Nothing major, but a better pay grade, actually. Baruch Hashem.” A pause. “But it’s—well, there’s a catch.”
I raised my brows. “A catch?”
“The job isn’t in Brooklyn.”
“So it’s in New Jersey?”
He shook his head. “South Florida. A city called Zion Hills.”
“Huge Jewish community. More affordable living, Uncle Norman tells me, plus better real estate. And Imma has already been offered an interview with a local elementary school.”
“At a school that believes in little luxuries like, I don’t know, literacy and staff bathrooms, can you imagine?” My mother made a face of intense satisfaction. “And there’s supposed to be a very elite yeshiva high school there. It seems to have a really excellent reputation.”
“Far away from my present reality, I suspected, unfolded some higher life, one sustained not by mere echoes but by the sound of happiness.”
I was overcome suddenly by the silence of my house: heavy, toneless. I looked back to my father and then resumed eating. “Okay, then.”
Maybe the way I said this, the fact that this monumental decision failed to elicit emotion, was disconcerting, a red flag that something within me was off. I didn’t watch many movies, being that this was Borough Park, where we were wary of spiritual disease, but I did know that the cinematic version of this scene would have been marked by dramatic angst. Yet I felt nothing of the sort: no sadness, no heartache over life’s sudden changes. Indeed, the thought of being freed from the unremitting monotony of my current existence gave me an exhilarating sense of escape. I was sick of enduring relentless, Chekhovian boredom, sitting alone in libraries, mourning what I’d never know: torturous love, great voyages, nostos. Far away from my present reality, I suspected, unfolded some higher life, one sustained not by mere echoes but by the sound of happiness. Each person, Bacon claimed, worships “idols of the cave,” those peculiar beliefs that constitute our character and, at least in my case, our ruin. My own idols, I know now, are these: a fundamental disdain for the gray on gray, an intolerance for what Freud recognized as life’s ordinary unhappiness.
My parents gave baffled looks. “Okay?”
“It’s okay with me, I mean,” I said.
“Maybe you’d like to mull it over,” my father said.
“The last thing we want, of course, is to uproot you,” my mother said.
“We’d understand,” my father said. “If I needed to, I could find other work just for the year, until you finish school. Things might be tighter, yes, but we believe in hashgochoh protis, don’t we? Hashem has a funny way of making things work out.”
My mother took my hand. “Your entire life is here, we realize.”
I shook my head. “I want to leave.” I looked back at my plate and continued eating. Outside, everything was now white and brilliant with ice.
Excerpted from The Orchard. Copyright © 2020 by David Hopen. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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