New York Holidays


A New York Story by Altimexis

Posted June 17, 2023


Saturday, February 11, 2023

Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Robin. Happy birthday to you!” Everyone sang out at the top of their lungs as Asher wheeled in an enormous birthday cake and set it in front of me, ready for me to blow out the sixteen candles on top. As a group, my friends sounded awful but I didn’t mind. My boyfriend, Larry, might have perfect pitch and a truly amazing singing voice, but there was no way he could compensate for all the kids who sang out of key. I made quick work of blowing out all the candles. As Larry liked to kid me, given the way I could dish it out the few times we argued, one thing his girlfriend didn’t lack was lung power. I smiled at Larry to let him know I was thinking of him when I made my birthday wish. We were celebrating a few days early, on Saturday, February 11, so that everyone could attend. My actual birthday was on Valentine’s Day and for that, Larry had promised me a very special evening that involved just the two of us.

The party was held in a private party room at the Ragin’ Cajun Café, located in Essex Crossing, one of New York City’s hottest new developments, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When we lived in Brooklyn, in the community of Manhattan Beach on the east end of Coney Island, I could count the number of friends I had on my fingers and maybe a few toes. Now, I was celebrating my sixteenth birthday with close to a hundred kids. Asher was a close friend who’d already established himself as one of New York’s top chefs, even while still in his teens, and the Ragin’ Cajun was his family’s restaurant.

We started the evening snacking on an assortment of gourmet appetizers while the guests arrived. After being seated, we were served a seafood gumbo followed by a salad of fresh greens with berries that tasted like they’d just been picked. Next came plates of sushi and sashimi, served with a spicy Cajun wasabi, the likes of which I’d never seen before. After that was cleared away, we were served, family-style, a profusion of the Cajun-Asian fusion dishes for which the restaurant was famous. I thought we’d finish the meal with the cake and ice cream, but first I was subjected to a serious roasting.

The first to speak was my boyfriend, Larry Sanders, who began, “Robin and I first met in the sixth grade, when we both started attending the Salk School of Science. Salk’s a so-called ‘elite’ public middle school that’s jointly run by the New York City Public Schools and the New York University School of Medicine. You couldn’t just say, ‘I wanna go there’, no. You had to apply and if you were in a private school like I was, you had to send all your school records. You had to submit an essay on why you wanted to go there, as if fifth graders are any good at writing essays, and if they liked what you wrote, they put your name in a hat. Actually, I don’t know if it was a literal hat, but they chose 140 names at random. I’m not religious or anything, but someone was watching over Robin and me, ’cause we both got in.

“So we were both eleven when we started at Salk, and Robin looked a whole lot different back then. She was a bit of a tomboy, with short hair, and she wore boys clothes. Since Robin can be a boys name, at first I thought she really was a boy and I really liked her no-nonsense attitude. I thought we might become best buds – until she went into the girls room instead of following me into the boys room – but we became best buds anyway.

“She lived in a place I’d never heard of called Manhattan Beach and with me being from the Upper West Side, I’d no idea where that was. There weren’t any beaches in Manhattan that I knew of and I didn’t wanna sound like a rube, so I looked it up on Google Maps. Of course I’d heard of Coney Island but you gotta understand, I’d never even been to Brooklyn before. Hell, I’d only been to Queens when we flew outta JFK or LaGuardia. Why the fuck was Manhattan Beach on the east end of Coney Island?

After more laughter, Larry continued, “Anyway, Robin and her family moved to the Lower East Side three years ago, in the middle of seventh grade, and by then she was starting to look more like a girl – not just physically, but she grew her hair longer and wore nicer clothes. I’d grown a lot taller myself and my voice had changed, and it was as I was getting ready for my bar mitzvah that I started having feelings for Robin like I’d never had before. Then Robin’s best friend, Dave, invited her to go to The Met and to bring a guest, and she invited me to go with her. Dave’s uncles were visiting from Seattle and Dave invited Robin’s brother, Josh, to go as his date, so I guess de facto I was Robin’s date. The thing was, I didn’t understand why we needed to leave so early in the morning to go to the opera.”

Larry again had to pause while everyone laughed, and then he went on. “Growing up on the Upper West Side, to me, ‘The Met’ meant the Metropolitan Opera. My mom’s a soprano and she sings at The Met. I’d no idea that for East-Siders, ‘The Met’ meant the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course I’d been there too, many times, but to me, it wasn’t THE Met. It was so confusing. Anyway, after we all grabbed some breakfast, Robin and I went off on our own and we spent a lot of time visiting the musical instruments collection, and we talked all about music. It turned out Robin was as passionate about classic rock as I was and by that evening, I knew that she was ‘the one’ for me.

“We just won’t talk about how we both got sick that night, or about how I accidentally walked in on her, or about how she got even with me. She’s been getting even with me ever since, but then I’ve been told that in most Jewish families, it’s the mother who lets the father think he’s the one making all the decisions – decisions that she’s already made.

“Anyway, happy birthday, Robin. You’re the greatest.”

After a round of applause, the next to speak was my brother, Josh, who began, “Robin’s the baby in the family. I have two older sisters, Sarah and Stacey, and then there’s Robin. Like Larry said, Robin was a bit of a tomboy when she was younger, and she was precocious. Our mother died when I was four, I think, and maybe because of that, we weren’t very observant, but we still kept kosher, perhaps more outta habit than anything.

“When we moved from Manhattan Beach to Manhattan, we did it with the help of a couple of college boys and a U-Haul. It took Dad several trips with the U-Haul, and so Sarah, Stacey and one of the college boys stayed at the house and helped load the U-Haul while the other college boy, Robin and I unloaded it and set up everything in the new apartment. We took the F-Train in the morning to Delancey and we had a little time to kill until Dad arrived, so we grabbed breakfast in the Essex Market. So what did my little sister order for breakfast? She ordered a breakfast sandwich with Canadian bacon, and coffee, which she drank black. She then asked the college kid, who was gay, if he had advice for teens on coming out to their parents. I was very much in the closet and so you can imagine how I nearly spewed my coffee, which contained cream and sugar, by the way, all over everyone. I might have been the only boy in the family, but Robin was the one with balls.”

After the laughter died down, Josh continued, “As an aside, it was during our moving in that I met four of our very best friends, and they’re here with us tonight. Dad gave me a budget for putting together a new home theater system and so I boarded an M21 bus to go check out the sales at Best Buy. While waiting for the bus, I met two very young gay couples who were also taking the M21. They all went to Stuyvesant High School, which is where I went to school, but they were all ahead of me, so I hadn’t known them before. They wasted no time in dissuading me from getting home theater gear at Best Buy and they even took the time out from what they’d planned for the day, to take me to a much better stereo place instead.

“One of them was a teenager who looked a lot like a young Tiger Woods and holding his hand was a boy with incredibly curly blond hair and emerald-green eyes. They introduced themselves as Asher White and Seth Moore. They were both sophomores at Stuyvesant and they’ve since married and have legally combined their last names, going by ‘Whitmore’. They still live with Seth’s parents in an incredible top-floor apartment in the building next to ours. Asher’s in his freshman year at NYU, where he’s working toward getting an MBA, and Seth’s a freshman at Columbia with the goal of going to law school. As I think you all know, Asher’s our chef for the evening, and he’s done a phenomenal job.” Josh began clapping and everyone stood and clapped, giving Ashe a well-deserved standing ovation.

“I’d also like to thank the Whites for letting us host Robin’s sweet sixteen here at the Ragin’ Cajun. This place is a far cry from the original restaurant, which was a hole-in-the-wall Cajun buffet, located a few blocks away on Orchard Street. Asher got his start when he had to take over for his parents when his mother was severely injured by a kid making a delivery on an e-bike, just days before the grand opening. Not only did fifteen-year-old Asher succeed in getting the restaurant off the ground, but the New York Times’ food editor claimed it had the best Cajun food outside of New Orleans. Although the pandemic was responsible for the demise of many of New York’s best restaurants, including a particular favorite of mine, the Good Stuff Diner, it was the landlord’s corruption and greed, coupled with a political vendetta that resulted in the Feds seizing the property.

“Meanwhile, thanks to the high demand for takeout during the pandemic, the White’s Asian takeout restaurant on Grand Street did very well. Then they got involved in the food cart business, so things probably worked out for the best in the long run. I’m sure many of you have grabbed a bite from a Ragin’ Cajun à la Carte food cart and would agree there’s no better fast food, anywhere. In the meantime, the Essex Crossing redevelopment project provided a new home for the Ragin’ Cajun, and here we are today. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, on the ground floor’s an all-you-can-eat dine-in buffet and a large priced-by-the-pound takeout buffet. Up here, along with these party rooms, there’s a white-tablecloth sit-down café with an à la carte gourmet menu, for those special occasions, as well as a tasting menu.

“How much is the tasting menu?” my sister, Stacey, asked.

“$300 per person, or $500 per couple,” Asher answered.

“Shit, that’s above my pay grade!” Josh exclaimed.

“Most tasting menus cost double that, or more,” my friend, Freck pointed out.

“That was Francis San Angelo, better known as ‘Freck’ ’cause of his freckles,” Josh continued. “I was just about to get to it, but the other young couple I met while waiting for the M21 bus was Freck and his boyfriend, Kyle Goldstein, who are true geniuses and now in their junior year at M.I.T. Freck recently turned sixteen and is in the combined architecture and civil engineering program. He plans to specialize in sustainable architecture and building sustainable cities. Kyle recently turned fourteen and is in the astrophysics program. I swear, he’s gonna be the next Albert Einstein. Kyle and Freck took the Amtrak Acela Express train down from Boston to spend the weekend in New York, just so they could be here for my sister’s birthday. That’s the kind of friends they are.”

After another round of applause, it was my best friend, Dave Schuster, who got up to speak. He said, “I first met Robin Arens when we both went to the Salk School. My mom and I live over in the Hillman Co-ops and Robin lives with her brother, sisters and their dad in the East River Co-op apartments. We both took the M14A-SBS bus every day to and from school, and so we ended up sitting together on the bus and walking together up Second Avenue. We both loved cosmology and we got into some weighty discussions during our daily commute. While everyone else on the bus was talking about the weather, sports and who was doing whom, we talked about the Big Bang, the nature of time and the origins of life. We got to be very close. I didn’t realize it at first but I was gay, and she was straight, and we could never be more than good friends.

“I was a year ahead of her and I’d just turned fourteen, when she invited me to her thirteenth birthday party, where I met her brother, Josh. He’d also just turned fourteen and was a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, which as you know is one of New York’s elite public specialty high schools. We really hit it off and it turned out he’s gay too, and we’ve been boyfriends ever since. I got into Stuyvesant but I was born just a few days after Josh and missed the cutoff for the start of the school year by just one fuckin’ day. I’ve since been working my ass off, doing independent study, testing out of courses when I could and going to summer school, so we’ll graduate together this spring.

“We’ve applied to several universities and although we both got early decision offers, they weren’t from the same schools. We should start receiving acceptance and rejection letters very soon – hopefully more of the former than the latter. Here’s hoping we can go to the same school together next year. Regardless, I have Robin to thank for me and my boyfriend getting together in the first place. If not for her and her birthday party three years ago, Josh and I might have never met.”

After Dave sat down, each of my sisters got up to say a few words about me and to tell some truly embarrassing stories. The three of us had been sharing a bedroom together, practically since I was born, and there were many stories to tell. A few more of my friends got up to speak and then, finally, it was time for the cake and ice cream.

After everyone sang Happy Birthday, Asher wasted no time in cutting up and distributing pieces of the cake, which was made with real Kailua, along with scoops of homemade Kailua ice cream. As with the rest of the meal, the cake and ice cream were among the best I’d ever tasted. Asher had gone all out in preparing a feast for my sweet sixteen. Finally, after cutting the cake, we danced the night away with musical entertainment supplied by my boyfriend and his band.

My sixteenth birthday party went on well past midnight, and then we made arrangements for everyone to call for cars to take them home, or to crash in one of our apartments, rather than having to brave the subway in the early morning hours. Then, come Tuesday, Larry indeed showed me a wonderful time for my birthday and Valentine’s Day.

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Saturday, February 18, 2023

“Hey Robin, I hear I missed quite a party,” Craig called out as he approached me from behind. I was waiting in line to check in for a chess meet and Craig was a kid I knew from back when we both attended middle school at Salk. He was in the sixth grade when I was an eighth grader, so I didn’t know him well, but he and I were in the chess club at Salk and we’re both on the Bronx Science chess team. Now that our chess meets are back to being in-person rather than virtual, we see each other all the time.

Stuyvesant was the hosting institution today and so I merely had to take the M22 crosstown bus, door-to-door. Craig lived uptown with his mother in Hudson Heights and undoubtedly had taken the A Train downtown to Chambers Street. Not that I’d ever been there, but his apartment was located just north of the George Washington Bridge, in Castle Village, and Craig claimed he had an amazing view of the Hudson, the bridge and Fort Lee, New Jersey, right from his bedroom window.

“You did indeed,” I replied, “but I can understand if I didn’t rate as highly as doing something more enjoyable, like your homework.”

“No!” he practically shouted. “It wasn’t like that, and it was your boyfriend that got us tickets for last Saturday night. You should blame him for getting them for the same night as your party. Besides, with my mom being a cardiologist at Presbyterian, I hardly see her as it is, so when she told me she had a few days off and asked if Larry could get us some tickets to the Symphony or the Met, I couldn’t exactly say no.”

“Well, you could’ve told your mom you had other plans, but tell me the truth; was your boyfriend involved?” It was cute the way Craig blushed in response.

“Yeah, Mom invited Simon too, and he spent the night. His mother’s still getting used to having a gay son. I don’t know if I told you this, but she grew up in a very religious household in Arkansas. Sometimes it’s just easier for Simon to spend the night with me, even with all of his equipment.”

Craig’s boyfriend had some sort of genetic spinal cord disorder, so he needed a motorized wheelchair to get around and had limited use of his hands. I’d yet to meet him but from the way Craig described him, his boyfriend was amazing. “With the Steadicam I got him for Christmas,” Craig continued, “he’s able to do so much more for himself now. I don’t think he’ll need much help once he starts high school. I just hope he gets into Bronx Science.”

“At least in his case, it won’t be left to chance,” I pointed out.

“Oh right, you were in the lottery.”

“I’d wanted to go to the High School for Math, Science and Engineering,” I added. “HSMSE would’ve given me a head start on a college degree. I’m lucky I got in at all, but I’m not complaining. I love Bronx Science, and I’ll still be able to get advanced placement. I just wish my boyfriend had gotten in. We have so little time together as it is. We both have our own schedules – like my chess meets and his band gigs – so not even the weekends are free anymore.”

Craig countered, “His mom’s a famous soprano and his dad’s a famous conductor, and he’s a prodigy who plays the piano, the violin and the guitar. On top of all that, he’s started his own rock band. I’d say LaGuardia’s exactly where your boyfriend needs to be.”

“I know you’re right,” I replied. “It’s just that going to Bronx Science had been Larry’s dream since he was, like, eight years old. It’s famous for having graduated more Nobel laureates than any other secondary school in the world. LaGuardia has its list of high-profile alumni too, including Leonard Bernstein, Liza Minelli, Janis Ian, Peter Nero and Jason Paige, to name just a few. My sister, Stacey, went there and I’m sure that had a lot to do with her winning a scholarship to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.”

“Trust me, sweating the SHSAT was no picnic either,” Craig Countered.

“I realize that, but at least it would’ve been under our control. If we didn’t get in, we’d have only had ourselves to blame. With the lottery, getting in was a matter of chance. I’ll take hard work over the ‘fate of the gods’ any day.”

The New York Public School System used the Specialty High School Admission Test as the entrance exam for all of the specialty high schools, but because of the pandemic, it wasn’t even given in 2020. Although many school systems now use computerized testing centers, which offer flexible schedules, social distancing and even proctored examinations in one’s own home, the New York City schools still used paper exams with computer-scored answer sheets and number 2 pencils. There was no way we could all gather to take an entrance exam in the midst of a global pandemic. Besides which, the mayor had long wanted to increase minority participation in the specialty high schools, which was embarrassingly small, and the pandemic gave him the perfect opportunity to finally get his way.

The mayor proposed a lottery to replace the standardized exam and it came as no surprise that the parents of the top eighth graders, particularly those who were Asian, threatened to take the city to court. On top of that, the head of the teachers’ union expressed concern that her members weren’t prepared to deal with an influx of students who couldn’t keep up with the rigorous academic program at the specialty high schools. In the end, a compromise was reached that satisfied no one. There was a lottery, but admission was restricted to students who were already in the Gifted and Talented program, who attended one of the specialized middle schools or who’s GPA placed them in the top 15% of their eighth grade class.

The lottery gave the top students from the city’s underperforming middle schools a fighting chance, but it still wasn’t enough. Not many kids of color even applied and the lottery hardly made a dent in minority admissions. As laudable as the goal might have been, New York was struggling with the same problem that had plagued a number of city school systems, not to mention America’s top universities. In the meantime, New Yorkers elected a new mayor, a black former police chief, who promised to reinstate the SHSAT. By focusing instead on early education, he hoped to increase the pool of qualified minority applicants. Without the budget to target those at-risk populations, however, most educators seemed to think he was doomed to fail. In any case, when it came to Larry and me, the damage had already been done.

“At least for Simon, there’s a good chance he’ll get into Bronx Science,” Craig responded, bringing me out of my reverie. “He’s been homeschooled all these years and he’s way ahead of most eighth graders. I’m sure he did well on the SHSAT – maybe even well enough for him to start as a sophomore. It would be so cool if we were in the same grade next year.”

“You’ll know next month, either way,” I pointed out.

“The letter can’t come soon enough,” Craig Continued. “Speaking of which, I’m thinking of having a party for Simon during Spring Break. His fifteenth birthday’s on April 7, which is Good Friday, so we’ll have the day off. I’m thinking of taking him out to a really nice restaurant too, but he’s never really been to a birthday party before, much less had one thrown for him. It’d be a great way for him to meet some of my friends, and of course that includes you. Hopefully, we’ll have something more than just his birthday to celebrate.”

“It’s also the second day of Passover,” I pointed out, “so I’m not sure how that’ll fit with my plans. Larry’s family always makes a big to-do of the first Seder at his grandparents’ place up in Peekskill, so I’ll definitely be going to that. For the second Seder, on Thursday night, a bunch of our friends are planning to get together to make our own Seder. This’ll be the fourth year we’ve done that as a group.”

“Gees, I haven’t celebrated Passover since I was a little kid,” Craig replied. “I mean, we’re Jewish, but my parents divorced a long time ago and my mom’s always been too busy to make a Seder. The sad thing is that we do have a large extended family in Brooklyn and I know they always have a big Seder at Passover, but we never go. We don’t even visit them. Mom thinks it’s a big deal that we have her family over for Thanksgiving every year, but it’s always her mother who does all the cooking.”

Putting my hand on Craig’s forearm, I responded, “For the longest time, we never had a Seder either. My mom died when I was just two years old and I can’t even remember what she looked like, other than from Dad’s photographs. She loved Passover and from what I’m told, she made the most fantastic Passover meals. After she was gone, my father just couldn’t bring himself to hold a Seder again.

“Then in 2020, with the pandemic looming, a bunch of us kids decided to make our own Seder and to hold it early, before the virus had spread. Asher Whitmore, who’s half-Asian and half-black Creole and not even Jewish, cooked up a fantastic meal for the Seder. He’s been written up in the New York Times for making the best Cajun food outside of New Orleans and he prepared all the food for my birthday party. For Passover he does something really cool; he's researched the types of foods that could have been eaten at the first Seder in Egypt, on the eve of the Exodus, and he prepares a meal that’s as authentic as he can make it.

“I think you’d enjoy our little Seder and since I’m in charge of the guest list, I’d like to invite you and your boyfriend to attend it this year. Whether or not you’re religious or believe in God is immaterial. It’d be a chance to reconnect with your roots and to share an amazing meal with friends. You could attend our Seder and still have a birthday party for your boyfriend the next day.”

“Simon’s not Jewish but even so, I think he’d enjoy it,” Craig replied. “The problem’s that it would be an ordeal for him to attend. He’s gotten a lot better at cutting up his own food and feeding himself, but if you’re not used to eating with someone the likes of Steven Hawking, it can be distracting. The last thing Simon would want is for his disability to be the center of attention and unless the place where you hold the Seder’s accessible, he’d hafta be carried inside.”

“We’ve been holding it in a townhouse on the Upper West Side that belongs to the fashion designer, Sophia Lawrence,” I explained. “Her son, Francis San Angelo, who goes by the nickname ‘Freck’, is a good friend of mine. His boyfriend, Kyle, was severely beaten by a cop at a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 and was confined to a wheelchair for more than a year. Even now, he walks with a limp. Their townhouse was once owned by a quadriplegic attorney and it’s fully accessible. It even has an elevator, so there’d be no problem with Simon attending.”

Cocking his head to the side and seeming to think about it, Craig replied, “You can tentatively pencil me in, but I think it might be too much for Simon to attend, particularly with his birthday being the very next day. Getting from his house to the Seder and back would involve taking at least three buses each way and by the time he got home, he’d be utterly exhausted.”

“Fair enough,” I replied as I finally stepped up to the table and signed in and was given my assigned matches for the day. Looking at my scorecard, I noticed the name and read it aloud. “Tanner Glazier? I used to know a Tanner Glazier when we lived in Manhattan Beach. We went to the same elementary school together. I wonder if it’s the same kid.”

“Where does he go now?” Craig asked.

“It says he’s a junior at Brooklyn Tech. If it’s the same guy, we used to play chess with each other when we were, like, nine or ten.”

“I guess you’ll find out soon enough,” Craig noted as we parted ways.

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When I got to the table where my first match was held, Tanner was already waiting for me and before I could say anything, he called out, “Robin! When I saw the name, I wondered if it might be you.” He looked a lot older now, but there was no mistaking his red hair and the freckles on his face, even if they were partly covered by a sparse red beard.

“I wondered the same thing about you,” I responded. “It’s been so long since we last saw each other, like maybe at the end of fourth grade for me and fifth grade for you.”

“I used to see you now and then around the neighborhood, but it’s been a while since the last time I saw you anywhere around Coney Island.”

“We moved to the Lower East Side three years ago,” I explained. “I used to go to the Salk School and my sibs were in high school at Brooklyn Latin, LaGuardia and Stuyvesant, so it only made sense to move to Manhattan. Dad requested and got a transfer to Manhattan Community College, and he even got a promotion in the process. He’s an associate professor now.”

“You, a Manhattan girl?” Tanner asked with a bemused expression. “Will wonders never cease? I see you go to Bronx Science.”

“And you go to Brooklyn Tech. At least you didn’t hafta go through the lottery.”

“Yeah, that musta sucked, and I might have never met my boyfriend if we didn’t both go to Brooklyn Tech, so it’s a damn good thing we didn’t hafta go through a lottery.”

“You’re gay?” I asked in surprise and he nodded his head. “I didn’t realize that. That’s cool. You know, my brother’s gay and so’s one of my sisters.”

“I’m not sure I even realized I was gay when I was in the fifth grade, although I was beginning to wonder why I liked looking at boys.” Then pulling out a pendant from under his shirt, he added, “My boyfriend gave this to me last year for Valentine’s Day, but it was also a sixteenth birthday present. My birthday’s today, by the way.”

“Oh that’s right,” I exclaimed. “I forgot that your birthday is a few days after mine. Happy birthday. Could I take a look at your pendant?”

Pulling the chain over his head, he handed it to me and I took a closer look. It was a very unusual pendant, in the shape of the Star of David, with the Hebrew letters for Chai, which means Life, in the center. What was particularly unique was the iridescent glass background in the rainbow colors that signified gay pride. Turning the pendant over, I noticed the inscription, which read, ‘As with Cliff, I can’t promise we’ll always be together, but know this: In 2022, I love you, and I’ll always love you – Zach’.”

“I take it Zach’s your boyfriend. Actually, I think I may have met him at a birthday party last summer. He was wearing a pendant just like this one. But who’s Cliff?” I asked.

“That’s quite a story,” Tanner replied. “Zach’s father grew up in Indiana and it turned out his best friend was living a double life, dating girls but hooking up with guys. That was way back in the eighties, when the gay pride movement was barely getting started. When he got AIDS, his whole family rejected him but Zach’s dad stuck by him, even though he was straight. He had a pendant made just like this one for Cliff’s seventeenth birthday, but Cliff died just a few days before it was ready. 

“When Zach’s dad realized his own son was gay, he gave it to Zach for his fifteenth birthday as a way of showing him that he was proud to have a gay son, and that it was okay for him to come out. That’s kinda how we got together. I saw Zach’s pendant and then I knew that the boy I’d been crushing on for over a year was also gay. Anyway, Zach found someone on Etsy who could make a duplicate, so we could have matching pendants.”

“It’s really beautiful,” I responded as I handed the pendant back to him. “I love shopping on Etsy; you can find artisans to make just about anything there. My brother would love something like this. Perhaps you could text me the info on the Etsy seller, so Josh could check it out.”

“I never realized that Josh was gay,” Tanner commented.

“His boyfriend is my best friend. We used to ride the bus together to Salk every morning. They met at my thirteenth birthday party. Stacey’s gay too. She’s in her freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design.”

“RISD’s supposed to be the best school out there for graphic arts,” Tanner commented.

“Stacey’s already published a couple of graphic novels and her blog’s subscribed by millions,” I replied.

“That’s impressive. Talent obviously runs in the family.”

“Say Tanner,” I asked after a pause, “Do you and your boyfriend have any plans for the second Seder this Passover? The reason I ask is that a bunch of us have been holding our own Seders, ever since the start of the pandemic. It’s a teens-only Seder. There’ll be maybe twenty or thirty of us, or maybe more if I keep inviting people, but there’s always room for two more,” I added with a laugh. “We’ve been holding it at a townhouse on the Upper West Side, near the American Museum of Natural History. My good friend, Asher White always prepares quite a feast, consisting of foods that might have been served at the very first Seder in Egypt, just prior to the Exodus itself.”

“Wait a minute – do you mean the Asher White, the famous Cajun-Asian teenage chef?”

“You’ve heard of him?” I asked in surprise.

“I’m a bit of a foodie,” he replied, “so of course I’ve heard of him. Pete Wells gave him quite a writeup in the Times. So you know Asher? Personally?”

“He and his husband, Seth, were among the first friends we made after we moved to Manhattan. They live in our cooperative.”

“They’re married?” Tanner asked.

“Yeah, and for quite some time. It’s a bit of a long story. They actually combined their last names too and go by Whitmore now, but sometimes I slip and refer to them by their ‘maiden’ names.”

“There’s a Ragin’ Cajun à la Carte that’s always parked right by our school,” Tanner replied. “Zach and I often grab a bite there for lunch. It’s so much better than eating in the caf.”

“It was actually an idea that another friend of ours had for Asher to go into the food cart business during the pandemic,” I explained. “Francis San Angelo, whom we affectionately call Freck, because he has freckles like yours, is the one who’s hosting the Seder at his mom’s townhouse. His mom’s Sophia Lawrence, the well-known fashion designer. He’s only sixteen and yet he’s in his junior year at M.I.T. He and his boyfriend will be coming down for the holiday.”

“Woah! That’s impressive!”

“His boyfriend’s only fourteen, and he’s also a junior.”

“Good God, I thought I was doing well when I started Brooklyn Tech at fourteen,” Tanner exclaimed.

“And you still are. There’s a price to be paid when you’re a genius. My own boyfriend’s a musical prodigy and the pressure has always been intense. Freck had a rough time of it growing up, and it’s actually Kyle who’s kept him grounded. They’ve been a couple for four years.”

“Kyle was only ten when they became boyfriends?” Tanner asked in surprise.

“Actually, Kyle was still only nine and Freck was eleven. They both have birthdays in December,” I explained. “They’re young and they’re super smart, but once you get past all that, they’re really great guys and good friends.”

“And so it was Freck who launched Asher into the food cart business?”

“With all of the office buildings closed and so many of the food cart vendors struggling to survive, Freck thought that fast food based on Asher’s recipes would be a welcome alternative to the Mediterranean food sold by most food carts” I went on. “It seemed like a good way to drum up new business in difficult times. What neither Asher nor Freck knew was that the number of food cart permits is strictly regulated and extremely limited, and you need a separate permit for each cart. There wasn’t much point in it if they had to wait ten years to get their first permit.”

“Why didn’t they just buy out someone else’s carts?” Tanner asked.

“’Cause the permits don’t transfer with the carts and the city would’ve given them to the next person on the list,” I explained. “The obvious solution was to partner with an existing vendor, rather than buying them out, and so Asher, Seth and Freck tried approaching potential vendors obliquely, using the guise of interviewing them for a school project. After all, they were just high school students and not even the vendors that were on the verge of bankruptcy took them seriously, but then one of the larger vendors approached Asher’s dad about licensing their recipes.

“They ended up becoming partners, but the vendor insisted that all the food had to be halal and that turned out to be a major headache. At least with halal food, you can mix meat and dairy and use shellfish, but just as with kosher restaurants, all it takes is one errant ingredient to wreck the entire kitchen. Everything, even the salt, had to be procured from halal suppliers.”

“I heard Asher’s opened a new restaurant on the Lower East Side,” Tanner continued, “and I’m anxious to check it out. It’s practically right across the Williamsburg Bridge from where my boyfriend lives.”

“It’s still called the Ragin’ Cajun and like before, there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet as well as a takeout buffet,” I confirmed, “but upstairs there’s a white-tablecloth café. The café has an extensive à la carte menu as well as a tasting menu, and there are private party rooms too.” Then it struck me that as with my birthday party, it’d be way easier to have the Passover Seder there than at Freck’s place, and so I added, “Maybe I can talk Asher into letting us have the Seder there instead of the townhouse.”

“With four subway lines and three major bus routes, it’d be way more convenient,” Tanner pointed out. “Zach and I could even bicycle over the bridge from his house in Greenpoint. It’d be great if you could hold it there. I bet Asher would prefer working in his restaurant’s kitchen, too.”

After a brief pause, Tanner continued, “By the way, Zach has a brother, Jake, who’s almost fourteen. Since their parents are both Emergency physicians and never home for dinner, I’ve taken to making dinner for the three of us every evening after school. They used to use food kits,” Tanner continued as he rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell him I said this, but Jake’s a great kid who’s become like a brother to me too. It’d be fantastic if he could come to the Seder.”

“Of course he can,” I replied. “Any brothers or sisters of yours I should be inviting?” I asked.

Laughing, Tanner answered, “I have four sisters and believe me, you do not want to invite them.”

I responded, “Okay, I’ll take your word for it.”

“I take it Asher’s husband’s Seth Moore?” Tanner asked and I nodded my head. “Why does that name sound so familiar? Isn’t his mother a doctor?”

“His mother’s an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering and she’s been in the news because of the cancer vaccine they’ve developed, but you probably heard of his name because of his father, who’s a congressman.”

Tanner’s eyes opened wide as he exclaimed, “Seth was at the Capitol on January 6! I remember all the news coverage. He and his dad were heroes.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “When I first met Seth’s dad, Frank Moore was one of the most powerful assemblymen in New York and a close friend of the governor. He worked as an aide to him back before he became the governor, when he was in Clinton’s cabinet. I think he was the secretary of HUD or something like that, and then he went on to become the attorney general of New York and then the governor. Anyway, Seth’s dad had planned to enter the governor’s race in 2022, but then several women came forward, alleging the governor had subjected them to sexual harassment, and the governor was forced to resign.”

“Yeah, I remember that!”

“With the ascension of the lieutenant governor, New York had a strong-willed woman at the helm who had every intention of running for the office in her own right. Given his association with the prior governor and the circumstances under which the governor had resigned, it wasn’t a good time to run for office and so he took time off to write a couple of books. When our congresswoman invited him as her guest to witness the counting of the electoral votes on January 6, he brought his son along to witness history in the making.”

“They sure saw a lot more of history than they bargained for,” Tanner said with a snort.

“Thanks to the role he and Seth played in protecting several of the representatives when the insurrectionists breached the house chamber, Frank Moore was asked to serve as the lead council during the impeachment trial,” I continued. “Then with redistricting, Lower Manhattan was left with an open Congressional seat and so he decided to enter what turned out to be a very crowded field. Perhaps it was because of his visibility in the impeachment trial or due to his frequent guest appearances on MSNBC; and the fact that the field was so split probably also played a role, but he won the primary and then went on to win the general election.”

“You sure know some interesting people.” Then noticing the activity all around us, Tanner added, “Looks like it’s time to play chess.”

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Thursday, April 6, 2023

Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol haleilot? Sheb’chol haleilot anu och’lin chameitz umatzah, halaylah hazeh kulo matzah.” As the youngest one present at our communal Seder, it fell to Jake, Zach’s brother, to sing the Four Questions that were central to the Seder service on this, the second night of Passover. ‘Why is this night different from all the other nights?’ he asked, chanting the traditional Hebrew prayer. ‘Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread? Why do we eat only bitter herbs? Why do we dip our herbs twice and why do we recline as we eat?’ It is the asking of these questions and the need to answer them that form the basis for retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt that is central to the observance of Passover.

The Passover Seder service, not counting the meal nor the festive singing afterwards, generally takes more than two hours by itself, and we were just getting started. Because there were so many of us, we ended up holding the Seder in a party room at the Ragin’ Cajun. We were seated at six round tables, each of which sat eight. Because of his extensive experience with Passover Seders over the years, my boyfriend, Larry, had been volunteered to serve as the group leader and so we were seated at what was effectively the head table. Naturally, I was seated next to him and to my right was Craig, my friend from Bronx Science. Also at our table were my guests, Tanner, his boyfriend Zach and Zach’s brother, Jake.

On the other side of Larry were my brother, Josh, and his boyfriend, Dave. They’d both be going to the State University of New York at Stony Brook next year, on Long Island. With my dad’s and Dave’s mom’s tuition benefits, the cost was affordable, and SUNY Stony Brook was renowned. My sisters, friends and their boyfriends and girlfriends were situated around the room at the other tables. Seder plates containing the various symbols of Passover were strategically placed on all of the tables along with plates of matzah, the unleavened bread of Passover, and bottles of wine.

There were four cups of wine that were to be drunk during the Seder service – two before the meal and two afterwards, but that posed a problem for our group of underage teenagers. It wasn’t an issue when we held the Seder at Freck’s house because consumption of alcohol for religious purposes, under the supervision of an adult, is perfectly legal. Freck’s mother purchased the wine and saw to it that we didn’t abuse it. The serving of wine to minors in a restaurant was an entirely different matter. Legally, the restaurant staff could have nothing to do with it and we as minors couldn’t even bring the wine in ourselves – not even in unopened, sealed bottles. It’s not uncommon to substitute grape juice for wine when serving young children, but most of us had been through our Bar or Bat Mitzvah and were considered ready to participate in Jewish prayer services as adults.

Fortunately, it just so happened that Josh and Robbin’s sister, Sarah, who’s a student at Vassar College, just celebrated her 21st birthday, so she was able to purchase and bring several bottles of Manischewitz concord grape wine. Technically, she was supposed to serve the wine to each of us individually, but she merely set two bottles of wine on each table and we helped ourselves. We behaved ourselves though, as we knew our future participation was dependent on not getting drunk. Besides which, six ounces of 24-proof alcohol, drunk over the course of an evening, were hardly enough to make us even tipsy. As with other kosher ceremonial wines, it was sickeningly sweet and in no danger of ever being mistaken for a fine wine.

I really liked the Passover Haggadah we were using because it focused not only on the plight of the Jews as slaves in Egypt, but on the plight of all the people of the world who’d endured slavery, even to this day. The service was an affirmation of freedom – not the kind of freedom espoused by some right-wing politicians, which amounted to their right to control how people lived and what they were allowed to think, but real freedom – the right for everyone to follow their heart. I was particularly disgusted by the way right-wing politicians were using transgendered youth as scapegoats for their own failed policies. What difference did it make what one’s biologic gender was? Wasn’t one’s perceived gender what was important?

Although the Haggadah focused on social consciousness, it still followed a traditional Seder service. Indeed, the Hebrew word ‘Seder’ means order. The Seder is an orderly arrangement of prayers, songs, story telling and a meal. Each item on the Seder Plate, from the parsley, to the bitter herbs, the charoset, the egg and the lamb shank bone, has a particular symbolism, and for each there’s an associated prayer. There was the ceremonial breaking of the middle matzah in half and of hiding one of the halves, known as the Afikomen, to be eaten after the passover meal. There was the rambunctious round-robin singing of Dayenu, a prayer in song thanking God for each of his many miracles, saying that if he’d only given us that one miracle and nothing else, it would have been enough.

Finally, we came to the last item on the Seder Plate, the charoset, which was a mixture of chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon, wine and honey. In the practice of the famous rabbi and philosopher, Hillel, we placed the mixture along with bitter herbs between two pieces of matzah and ate what some consider to be the very first-known example of a sandwich. It was certainly the first documented sandwich in history and it symbolized both the mixture of the sweetness of life with the bitterness of slavery, as well as the bricks and mortar with which our enslaved ancestors built the great works of ancient Egypt.

And with the completion of the first part of the service, it was time to eat the Passover meal!

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We started our Passover dinner with a simple bowl of salt water in which sat a peeled hardboiled egg. It was a very traditional start to the Passover meal but as Asher pointed out, chickens had not yet been domesticated at the time of the Exodus, so any eggs eaten by the enslaved Israelites would’ve been from the common waterfowl in the region, such as ducks, geese and quail. “Unfortunately, Trader Joe’s was out of quail eggs and so I made do with what they had, which was chicken eggs.” That was followed by something called gefilte fish, which was a poached concoction made from minced whitefish, eggs and matzah meal, which was served with fish broth jelly and horseradish sauce. It wasn’t original to the first Seder and in fact originated in Eastern Europe, but a Seder without gefilte fish was like a fiddler without a roof.

“This next course requires some explanation,” Asher began as the servers began distributing plates of what looked like chili and pita bread, neither of which were appropriate for Passover. “I think most everyone here is Ashkenazi, having immigrated to the U.S. from Central and Eastern Europe, but the Jews who settled in the Middle East and Northern Africa and later, with the Moorish incursion, in Portugal and Spain, are Sephardic. Sephardic traditions hone much more closely to those of the original Hebrews, not just with respect to their pronunciation of the Hebrew language, but also with respect to the food they eat.

“Legumes are native to the Middle East and they would have constituted a significant part of the diet in ancient Egypt. Indeed, mana aside, it’s likely that dried beans were one of the main foods that sustained the Israelites during their long journey through the desert. Legumes would have almost certainly been served at the first Seder table in Egypt, yet they reminded the Ashkenazi rabbis so much of leavened bread that they banned their use during Passover. Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, continue to eat legumes of all kinds during Passover to this day, and hummus with matzah is frequently served at the Seder table. I’d originally planned to serve hummus, but it turns out that it originated with the Arabs of the thirteenth century and hence, it didn’t exist in Ancient Egypt.

“If you go to Egypt today, however, you’ll come upon a variety of dishes made with fava beans, olive oil and cumin. Known as fül medames, fül is considered by many to be the national dish of Egypt. The Jerusalem Talmud itself makes mention of fül, so we know that it was eaten as early as in the fourth century. However, the discovery of dried fava beans in at least one archaeologic site has led many scholars to believe that fül originated in Ancient Egypt, so I’ve decided to include it here as part of the Seder meal.

“An even more remarkable discovery was that the original version of matzah was soft. The practice of making hard, brittle matzah didn’t originate until the sixteenth century in Eastern Europe, reportedly to ensure that leavening wasn’t possible. In the absence of modern preservatives, however, soft matzah becomes stale after only a few days whereas hard matzah can be prepared weeks in advance. The reason for using hard matzah was therefore more likely practical than philosophical, as it made it possible for matzah to be baked in bulk and overseen by rabbis who could ensure that the bakers didn’t use flour that wasn’t strictly kosher.

“Traditional Sephardic matzah is soft and for Yemeni Jews in particular, the preparation of soft Passover matzah is a significant role played by the women of the household. If you think about it, the only limitation on the original version of matzah was the lack of time for the bread to rise. Otherwise, the ingredients would’ve been the same as for any bread and the resulting matzah would’ve been soft. What appears to be pita bread before you is really a traditional Yemeni matzah made with passover flour, water, salt and olive oil, and it’s much more likely representative of the original version of matzah that was eaten by the Israelites when they fled Egypt.”

The fül turned out to be a bit spicy, but it was delicious nevertheless and the Yemeni matzah was remarkably similar to the Indian bread, nam. After the servers cleared away remnants of the fül, they served us course after course of incredible foods, including thinly sliced braised lamb with dates and figs, duck stew with lentils and squash, and a mixture of vegetables and whole grains. Noticeably absent were any kind of potatoes, which were native to the New World and weren’t available to the ancient Egyptians. As we ate, I talked with my friends, both new and old.

One thing I hadn’t realized was that Freck and Kyle had never gotten around to completing their Jewish studies nor going through with their bar mitzvahs. I’d just assumed that the ceremony had been for immediate family only, because of the Covid restrictions in place at the time. They actually had been planning on holding the service by Zoom, but then Kyle was injured in the summer of 2020 and his recovery and rehabilitation took priority. It was a miracle that Kyle didn’t suffer permanent brain damage, let alone that he was able to keep up with his academic studies.

Freck, for his part, was dedicated to helping take care of his boyfriend and for a time, his mother even employed me to help take care of him. Therefore, Freck’s own plans for his bar mitzvah took a back seat to helping his boyfriend regain the ability to walk. Finally, they’d be going through with their bar mitzvahs this summer, on the Fourth of July weekend, and we were all invited.

“So I understand you go to LaGuardia,” Zach began, addressing my boyfriend. “I’m passionate about classical music and could have easily gone there except for one tiny little problem. I don’t have any talent.” We all laughed at that. “My brother, on the other hand, lacks any kind of music appreciation and listens to the most godawful hip-hop.”

“At least my music’s less than a thousand years old,” Jake interrupted.

“More like a hundred years old,” Zach countered, causing Jake to roll his eyes. I had a feeling this was a discussion they’d had many times before. “My music’s timeless, but since I lack any musical talent and with two physicians for parents, I guess I’ll just hafta go into the family business and become a physician too.”

“It’s ironic that I have parents who are world-class musicians, yet since I was a little boy, I’ve only wanted to be a medical scientist,” Larry explained. “My grandmother on my mom’s side died suddenly from complications of diabetes when I was only eight years old. Hers was type 1 diabetes; she had it since she was eleven and hers was particularly brittle. She had to give herself insulin shots all her life and her sugars were always up and down. They tried her on an insulin pump when they first came out, and again when the technology improved, and they even tried a pancreatic cell transplant but it didn’t take. Ultimately, she went on to have both of her legs amputated and she became blind in both eyes. Since she died, I’ve been determined to be the one to come up with a cure.”

“So how did you end up at LaGuardia?” Zach asked.

Rather than letting Larry answer, knowing he’d downplay his talent, I chimed in, “Larry’s mom’s a famous soprano with the Metropolitan Opera and his dad’s one of the principal conductors for the New York Symphony, and Larry himself is a prodigy with a shelf full of awards to show for it. He started in on piano and violin lessons when he was barely out of diapers, and later took up playing the guitar when he developed a taste for classic rock and roll. Like his parents, he has perfect pitch and so they assumed he was destined to become a concert pianist or violinist, or maybe even a rock musician. It was always a given that he’d go to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, just like they had, but he had his heart set on becoming a medical scientist.”

“I was devastated when I found out that applications to the specialty high schools were gonna be by lottery,” Larry explained. “I’d always wanted to go to Bronx Science, but there were five applicants for every available slot and there was Robin to consider. If worse came to worst, I could afford to go to a private school, but without Robin, it wouldn’t have been the same. With the SHSAT, the odds of us both getting into the school of our choice were pretty good, but with the lottery, the odds we’d both get into any of the specialty high schools, let alone the same one, were only one in 25. If only one of us could win the lottery, it was better that it was Robin. Her father never could have afforded to send her to a private high school.

“What I hadn’t expected was that her father would make me consider something I’d never thought of before. We got to talking after Robin and I returned to her home after going to a Black Lives Matter protest, and he asked me why I wasn’t applying to one of the music programs in addition to the specialty high schools. As he pointed out, some of the top music schools are at universities that are among the best for medical science – places like Northwestern University, Vanderbilt, Rice, USC, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Michigan and UCLA, to name a few. With my background, not only might I have an easier time getting into one of those schools as a musician than as a science major, but with a dual major in music and science from a top university, I’d have a competitive edge in getting into a top graduate school or even medical school.

“Our school counselors are always telling us how admissions committees love candidates who are ‘multidimensional’, but it had never even occurred to me that I could apply to LaGuardia and to the other specialty high schools at the same time. Although technically one of the elite specialty high schools, LaGuardia never used the SHSAT and it wasn’t in the lottery. Instead, admissions are by audition and because of the pandemic, auditions in instrumental music were virtual. Up to one audition was permitted on each of up to two instruments. Although mastery of classical guitar can be as challenging as mastery of the piano or the violin, LaGuardia’s curriculum favors the classics and so I submitted auditions on the piano and the violin.”

“Larry’s parents have a state-of-the-art recording studio in their brownstone and they have a Steinway concert grand piano in their living room that’s worth well over a hundred grand,” I took over, “and I was astounded to learn that Larry’s violin is worth nearly as much. Even with all that equipment, we knew that none of it would matter if his audition sucked. The admissions committee would be focusing solely on how well he played and the choice of the pieces used for the audition was therefore critical. We watched countless YouTube videos of successful past auditions. In the end, Larry chose to use his own unique solo arrangements of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on piano and of the Hoe-Down from Aaron Copeland’s Billy the Kid Suite on violin  — and he got in!”

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For dessert, Asher served a confection consisting of alternating layers of matzah, crushed sesame seeds and dates and smothered with honey. It was sickeningly sweet, but delicious and just the right thing to follow the huge meal we’d just had. As we were finishing up our dessert, Asher announced, “In a moment, we will begin the search for the Afikomen. This being a restaurant, you can’t search the kitchen, nor can you search any of the other dining areas, as the patrons wouldn’t particularly like it.

“Because there are a limited number of places to hide it in this room, we’ve concocted a virtual afikomen to help you find the real one. Instead of traipsing all over each other trying to find it, you’ll find there’s a QR code on the last page of your Haggadah that you can scan with your phones. It’ll take you to a website with a virtual environment with lots of places to explore. There are numerous clues to help you find it, so pay attention to everything around you, both in the real world and the virtual one. Once you find the virtual Afikomen, it will unlock the clues you need to find the real Afikomen in this room, but you’ll still need to find it.

“You have a half-hour from now to find the Afikomen and in the unlikely event that someone actually finds it, the prize is dinner for two from our tasting menu, in the Ragin’ Cajun Café – a $500 value. Go ahead and scan the code if you haven’t already done so, and good luck! You’re certainly gonna need it.”

We all wasted no time in scanning the code and accessing the website. I had a decent phone, but Larry’s was quite a bit larger and I assumed he’d have an unfair advantage. When I looked at his screen, however, that was obviously not the case as the viewable area on the website was limited to the same area as mine. There’s only so much of an environment that can be displayed on a phone, particularly when accessing it via a website. The environment was typical of those used in a number of VR games, showing a pastoral scene with numerous barn animals all about.

There was an older gentleman with a long white beard standing by a stream, so I figured there might be a way for him to give me a clue. I tapped on his head to see if he would talk to me, but instead he vanished and in his place there were two gold coins. WTF? I tapped on the coins and they too vanished, but otherwise absolutely nothing seemed to happen. Perhaps I was supposed to spend the coins on something, but what and where? I saw a row of buildings with some shops, so I tried tapping on each of them, yet nothing happened.

I hadn’t a clue what to do next when Jake, Zach’s younger brother, muttered, “Oh come on, it can’t be that obvious.” After a few more minutes, he said, “Oh wow, there’s the virtual Afikomen, and it’s… hmm. How does that tell me where the real one is? Oh, of course!” Jake then walked up to Asher and sang, “Chad gadya, chad gadya.”

With that, Asher said, “Congratulations, Jake. You’re the winner, and it took you all of six minutes.” He then handed him a half-piece of matzah, wrapped in clear plastic, along with a certificate for his free dinner. “Would you like to explain how you found the Afikomen, and how you did it so quickly?” Asher requested.

“Sure thing,” Jake responded, loudly enough for all to hear. “Okay, the virtual scene opens in a pasture with various animals, but there’s also a man with a beard who looks out of place. When I tapped on the man, he instantly turned into two gold coins. Hmm. I tapped on the coins and they seemed to disappear, so I knew they had to have been spent on something, but what? So when I looked around the scene again, I noticed there was a goat, tied to a fence nearby, that I didn’t think was there before, and that made me think of the Passover song, Chad Gadya. When I tapped on the goat, he disappeared and was replaced by a cat. Bingo!

“The English translation of the words of the song start with, ‘An only kid my father bought for two zuzim,’ so when I tapped on the bearded figure, who I guess represented my father, I got the two coins which he used to buy the goat. The next verse of the song begins, ‘Then came the cat and ate the kid,’ so when I tapped on the goat, it turned into a cat and that told me I was on the right track, so I looked for a dog and sure enough, there was a dog nearby. ‘Then came the dog and bit the cat.’ I tapped on the dog and, sure enough, a stick fell from the sky and landed on the dog’s head, and then it fell to the ground. ‘Then came the stick and beat the dog,’ so the next thing I needed to look for was a fire.

“That was where it got a bit tricky, ’cause there wasn’t an obvious fire, but there was a book of matches just lying on the ground right next to where the stick fell, and when I tapped on it, the stick burst into flame. The next thing I needed was water and there happened to be a stream that led to a pond, and when I tapped the pond, it spread out over the fire and the fire went out. ‘Then came an ox and drank the water,’ so I looked for an ox and when I tapped on it, it ambled up to the pond and drank all of it up. Next I needed to look for a butcher to slay the ox, but there were no butchers in sight, nor were there any people at all. There were some buildings, however, including a house, a synagogue and some shops, and one of them had chickens hanging in the window, so I figured that was the butcher shop and I tapped on it.

“What happened next was kinda spooky, ’cause a black curtain covered the window of the butcher shop and then a gravestone appeared out in front of it. That fits with the next verse, ‘Then came the Angel of Death and killed the butcher,’ so the next thing I needed was to find God to vanquish the Angel of Death. What better place to look for The Almighty than in a synagogue, so I tapped on the synagogue and the doors opened and I was drawn inside. Standing up front, on the bima, was a black rabbi with Asian features who looked like Asher, so I tapped on him and the screen filled a with piece of matzah and with musical notes and the words, ‘Chad gadya,’ and that’s how I knew how to get the real Afikomen. I had to go up to Asher and sing, ‘Chad gadya’.”

Nearby, Freck muttered, “I was looking for something more inventive, like a mathematic progression in the numbers of animals around the pasture, and it turned out to be something from a lousy song.”

The servers distributed pieces of matzah to all of us so we could all share in the Afikomen, and then the Seder service resumed. We said the prayers that followed the meal, drank the third cup of wine, offered the profit Elijah his ceremonial cup of wine, said more prayers, drank the final cup of wine and recited the concluding prayers.

Then came all the singing, starting with Chad Gadya! Unbeknownst to me, Larry had brought his guitar and he played it as we sang all the songs. At the end of the evening, noticing that Larry had also brought a violin case, Zach asked Larry if he could play something on his violin, so Larry got it out and launched into a solo rendition of the theme from Schindler’s List.

As the final notes died away, Zach said something so profound that really touched my soul, and I think it touched Larry’s even more so. Zach said, “You played that so beautifully, Larry. If I closed my eyes, I could almost have believed I was listening to Itzhak Perlman himself. You’re not there yet, but with practice and education, I think you could become another Joshua Bell or Anne-Sophie Mutter, or perhaps even the greatest of them all, Jascha Heifetz. I love to listen to classical music and I’ve attended concerts featuring all of those artists except, of course, Jashca Heifetz, who died before any of us were born. I have many of his recordings though, which are among the finest ever made, and I’d like to think I know exceptional talent when I hear it.

“My dad likes to tell the story of the first time he heard a great violinist in concert. Before tonight, I never really understood how it could’ve moved him so much that he still remembers it some forty years later as if it was just yesterday. When he was growing up in Indianapolis, there was a pioneer reenactment village called Conner Prairie, maybe twenty miles outside of the city. He took me there once and it’s pretty lame, but then Indy isn’t exactly New York. Anyway, it was the start of the eighties and the Indianapolis Symphony was looking for ways to reach a wider audience, so they had the idea of holding open-air concerts at Conner Prairie. The concerts did so well that they eventually built a permanent amphitheater on the site, but for the inaugural concert, they played on a makeshift stage at one end of an open field.

“So my grandparents bought tickets, which included entry to the park, and they made a day of it with my dad and my aunt. In the early evening as the sun started to set, they set up lawn chairs and ate a picnic dinner while they waited for the symphony program to begin. It featured a young prodigy from Bloomington, Indiana, which is where Indiana University has what’s arguably one of the best music schools in the world. The prodigy, who was only thirteen years old, stood in front of the symphony orchestra and played Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. His name was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violinists of our time, and his performance touched my father, who was only ten, in a way that still resonates with him today.

“Imagine if young Joshua had decided to become a scientist instead. Maybe he’d have been good at it, but not likely as exceptional as he is at playing the violin.” Then looking right at my boyfriend, Zach continued, “Larry, you have the talent as a musician to do great things and it’s obvious that you love music as much as I do. I’m probably destined to be a medical scientist, and I hope to be a great one, but I could never be a great musician. I just don’t have that kind of talent, but you do. As a medical scientist, you’d be one of thousands fighting for the meager funds available for research. I expect that I’ll always be scrambling for research grants, but you don’t need to. Perhaps the best way for you to contribute to medical science is to become a great musician – the kind of musician who can attract the audiences and the donors to raise millions for medical research.” Wow! “And then you can fund my research,” he added to everyone’s laughter.

I’d only met Zach and his brother once before, but it was at a large party and I never actually spoke to them, nor did I realize that he was the boyfriend of my old friend, Tanner. The story he told was extraordinary and it affected me in a way nothing else had before. I could tell from the look on Larry’s face that it had affected him in the same way. He’d been chasing a dream since the age of eight, but that was all it had ever been – a dream. I had no doubt that he was capable of pursuing his dream, but his greatest talents lay elsewhere. Larry was a gifted musician on three instruments with a passion for music that matched my own. Already, he was attending one of the best high schools in the world for music and I had little doubt that he’d go on to study at Juilliard, Eastman or Yale, or maybe even the Royal College of Music in London.

Larry was going to have to focus his talents on one instrument for sure. Becoming proficient in playing multiple instruments is difficult, but becoming a world class musician means practicing every day for hours at a time on a single instrument, developing muscles and neural pathways in the brain specific to that instrument alone. We studied that in our neural science unit at Salk. Regardless of whether Larry went on to become a concert pianist or a violinist or even a rock star, I’d be there with him. We’d have very different lives than I’d envisioned – ones in which Larry spent much of his time on the road, but I’d love him no less and I’d stick with him, no matter what. I’d undoubtedly have to immerse myself more in my own career than I might have otherwise. Raising children would be particularly difficult, but then Larry was himself a perfect example of a child raised in such a situation, and look what he’d become!

Larry and I had really great friends – friends that I hoped would be with us for the rest of our lives. It was nice reconnecting with Tanner and I really liked Zach and Jake. Anyone who was capable of influencing Larry and me the way Zach had was someone I wanted to be a part of our lives from now on. In the meantime, I had a birthday party to go to tomorrow up in Riverdale. Craig’s boyfriend, Simon, had indeed gotten into Bronx Science, and would be starting there as a sophomore next fall. Tomorrow, he’d be turning fifteen. My circle of friends was expanding, but for now, it was time to go home and get some sleep.

The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope and Alan Dwight in editing my stories, as well as Awesome Dude, Codey’s World and Gay Authors for hosting them.

Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay preteen and teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. AAll characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. Although reference is made to the New York City Schools and the elite specialty high schools, any resemblance to actual facilities, classes, teachers or students is unintentional. As always, opinions expressed by characters in the story represent the opinions of the characters and are not representative of those of the author nor the sites to which the story has been posted. The author retains full copyright.