A Peculiar Orangement

It was their first Seder together as a couple, and Max was worried it would be their last.

He spent the entire day trying to make sure this night would be perfect for Lev. In the morning, while working from home, he made charoset by blending apples and walnuts together. But after realizing he added cumin instead of cinnamon, he had to start over. He then spent the afternoon squeezing a raw chicken breast over a bowl of lukewarm water, confident he was making a flavourful chicken stock. With only an hour to spare, it was time for the centrepiece: the Seder plate. 

Max placed a hard-boiled egg on the plate, followed by a dog bone for the shank bone, and a dollop of wasabi to act as the bitter herb. He added a spoonful of his homemade charoset and placed the karpas in its intended zone. It looked great but wasn’t he missing something? Right, of course! Max walked over to the Provigo bag by the sink. He fished out a juicy plump orange and gently placed it in the centre of the plate, turning it over so its navel looked up at him. Max blew a chef’s kiss. 

He stepped back and marvelled at his feast. “Magnifique!” He needed to show his parents. 

Normally during Passover his mom would make the charoset and his dad would prepare the soup, but Max decided he wouldn’t be going back to his parents in Toronto for the Seders this year. Their divorce and his new job made everything too complicated. Besides, every news station in the country warned of a massive storm hitting the island of Montreal that day. Being stuck on a VIA Rail train for ten hours during a torrential downpour didn’t sound like fun. 

 Instead, he snapped a selfie—donning a Barbra Streisand apron over his tank top and greasy sweatpants—with his homemade feast in the background. He sent the photo to each parent:  “Look,” he typed, adding a bunch of smiling emojis. “All grown up!” 

His mom texted back a few minutes later: “That all looks lovely, Max! Remember to peel the garlic next time before you cook it. You boys have the best time tonight. Xoxo. P.S.: Are you going to Lev’s family for Mimouna next week?”

Max shuddered. Lev hadn’t spoken to his family since the Hanukkah party. A few days ago, he made an excuse about not wanting to get COVID before exams but Max knew the real reason his boyfriend skipped out on the Cardoza family Seder this year.  

So it was just him and Lev. Two young men trying to make the Seder work in a shoebox second-floor Mile End apartment. Their unit was one of dozens on a long, narrow street filled with compact brick triplexes like theirs. Each apartment was stacked on top of one another with winding, outdoor staircases leading to the street. Outside their window, Hasidic children played on the street while their parents prepared for Passover. Nearby, a group of students drank wine and blasted French indie pop off their third-floor balcony. This apartment must have housed an entire family of Jewish immigrants a hundred years ago, Max thought, while he brushed weed crumbs off his dining room table and opened the windows for some air. He set a white tablecloth down and placed the makeshift Seder plate on top. Now this block is home to hipsters, Hasidim, and us two meshuganas.

As Max continued to arrange the table, the front door creaked and Lev walked inside, switching  his toque at the doorstep with a small, blue yarmulke. 

“You’re home early!” said Max, covering the kitchen table in panic. “How was your day!?”

“Frustrating,” said Lev, catching his breath. He unbuttoned his pea coat and placed it on the coat rack. “My professor ended class early because of the storm, which meant she also cancelled office hours. I had prepared a whole review outline.” Lev blew into his glasses, wiping the fog from the lenses. “Everyone’s freaking out about this storm. My constitutional law prof says in Vermont they’re reporting rain that looks like milk. Then in Maine there’s maple syrup pouring from the sky in buckets. And all this nonsense is coming from someone with a Ph. D. from Princeton! ” He put his glasses back on and made his way to the kitchen area. “Honestly, Max, I’ve lived in Montreal  for twenty-five years. When has anyone ever cared about bad weather in this city? We’ve seen snow in May before. How are—

Lev stared at the kitchen area: two plates and paper towels were at opposite sides of the table next to stapled paper Haggadot. “Max,” said Lev, his face scrunching as he peered at the Passover table. “What’s this?”

“Surprise!” said Max, sweating.  “I know you said you wanted me to take Judaism more seriously, so go and behold, our first Shapiro-Cardoza Seder!”

“It’s lo and behold.” Lev peered at the trays of vegetables and roasted chicken on the kitchen counter. “This is . . . you really didn’t have to. I was just going to go to Chabad down the street.” He stared at a pot with flaky squares floating to the top. “Is that matzo ball soup?”

“I’m not sure they came out as balls, exactly, but yeah.” Max grinned. “I know you’re bummed about not going home this year cos of exams but now that we’re official, I thought maybe we could do something together.” He took Lev’s hand and stroked it. “As a couple.”

Lev yanked his hand back to his side. He began nervously fiddling with the collar of his Oxford shirt. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, I have a lot of studying to do. But this is—do you even know the prayers?”

“Of course I do.” Max pulled out Lev’s chair for him. “You know, just because I’m secular doesn’t mean I didn’t have Seders growing up.”

“Oh. Okay.” Lev grabbed an extra yarmulke from the counter and handed it to Max. Lev sat down slowly, marvelling at the paper booklet. “You put all this together by yourself?”

“Me and Rabbi Google,” said Max, sliding a makeshift Haggadah across the table. Max  gestured to the throw pillow on Lev’s chair. “Sit down. Let’s begin.”

Lev recited the prayer over the first cup of wine. Max should have been paying attention to the words, but he was too busy staring at his boyfriend’s bearded, handsome face, thinking about their history together. Had two years already gone by since Lev put that roommate ad up on the Facebook student housing group? They met at this very table for the interview. Lev’s brother was moving to Ottawa for med school, which left him with a spare bedroom for the fall semester. Lev allowed Max to stay under two conditions: he kept a kosher kitchen and respected his rigorous study routine. The cheap Mile End rent drew Max in even if it meant no longer eating cheeseburgers at home.

After washing his hands, Lev moved on to the prayer for the vegetables. He dipped a whole cucumber into salt water and crunched down. Max started giggling. “Did you intend to choose a phallic karpas?” muttered Lev. “Real mature.”

Max remembered how their relationship evolved slowly. Sometimes Max would “forget” a towel on the way to shower and would casually stroll back through the hallway naked. Lev would keep his door cracked open while pretending to study. Other times, when Lev played piano with masterful focus, Max would gaze at the back of his head in silence. When they finally slept together—on a cold January night over winter break—it felt like the start of something new, yet familiar. Everything felt so natural; Max sometimes forgot it was Lev’s first time kissing a guy.

They went on sleeping together in secret for a few months. Lev slipped into Max’s bedroom late at night only for Lev to pretend, the next morning, that nothing had happened between them. Perhaps the “forbidden romance” element could be sexy for some guys but Max couldn’t stomach it for long. He couldn’t stop worrying he was just some kind of sexual experiment to Lev—a kink to be ironed out later in life. Eventually, Max gave Lev an ultimatum: be open about their relationship or he will move out. “I didn’t step out of the closet to be roped back in,” he explained.

Snap out of it, thought Max, his mind returning to the Seder. Time to tell the story of Exodus.

Barely consulting the Haggadah, Lev recited the story of baby Moses, the burning bush, and Moses’ return to Egypt. Time for the ten plagues. With each brutal terror unleashed upon the ancient Egyptians, Max and Lev dipped their pinkies into their glasses and placed a drop of red wine on their plates. With each divine terror Max remembered him and Lev’s own path to liberation.

“Dam. Blood.”

After Max’s graduation party last spring, Lev promised Max he would tell his family about their relationship. It took a few months, but at the Cardoza Hanukkah party, Lev, no matter how much he fretted and sweated, succeeded in introducing Max as his boyfriend. 

“Tzfardaya. Frogs.”

 It didn’t matter that Lev referred to Max that night as “pal,” not “babe” as if they were buddies in a 1950s sitcom together. It also didn’t matter that Lev let go of Max’s hand when he met his father. Or that he could barely look him in the eye during the Uber ride home.

“Keeneem. Lice.”

Who cares how Lev behaved that night, thought Max, dipping his pinky into the wine glass. Lev did a brave, adult thing. He upheld his promise, and Max could finally stop doubting Lev’s feelings for him. With their relationship now open and official, they could be free and happy together and never face any more challenges. The hard part was over, right?    

Look at us now, thought Max, as he dipped his pinky into the wine glass for the final plague: “slaying of the firstborn.” Max had a full-time I.T. job and Lev had only a few more law exams left before sitting the bar. They were no longer hiding. Their real, grown-up lives could begin (that is, if Max could figure out how to cook chicken soup without poisoning them).

Lev stopped blessing his matzo sandwich when he eyed the fruit at the centre of the Seder plate. “What’s with the grapefruit?”

“It’s an orange,” said Max. “I saw it on this Reform website. Basically, there was this professor in the ’80s, Susannah Heschel, who heard that activists were putting bread on a Seder plate to represent Jewish lesbians. She wanted to do something similar without breaking Passover, so she used an orange to represent all sorts of marginalized  Jews.” He then grabbed the orange off the Seder plate, feeling its ripeness in his hand. “I think I also read something about spitting out the orange seeds as a metaphor for protesting homophobia. I’m fuzzy on the details. The point is the orange shows that all Jews are fruitful and belong at our Seder.” 

Lev gripped his third glass of wine and rolled his eyes. “So it’s a feminist thing. Are you also going to put The Communist Manifesto on there while you’re at it?”

“Why are you being so defensive? I thought you’d appreciate this.” Max moved his chair forward and walked his fingers down Lev’s arm before finding his hand. “The orange recognizes couples like us.”

Lev stood up from the table. His entire body was shaking. Max noticed Lev was hard. “I think I need to step outside,” mumbled Lev, sweating.

“What’s the matter?” asked Max. “Was the wasabi too bitter? I swear the jar said it expired only two weeks ago.”

“I just can’t.” Lev’s face was bright red. He grabbed his pea coat off the rack and draped it over his shoulders. “I’m not used to this,” said Lev, reaching for his boots. “Matzo cubes. You playing housewife. None of this feels normal. I’m sorry. I’m going to see if I can still catch the Chabad Seder.”

“Stop!” Max froze in shock as Lev stepped outside. But he couldn’t just watch  Lev leave in the middle of dinner, so he shot up from his chair and raced to the front door. When he stepped out onto their balcony, he saw Lev racing down the winding staircase ahead of him. “We haven’t even gotten to the main course! I made a kugel that’s only like fifty per cent burnt!”

Lev stopped at the middle of the staircase and turned around to face Max, his breath short and panicked.“I’m sorry. I know you’re trying. I know you worked hard on this Seder. I know you care.”

“So what’s the problem?” Max thought Lev’s entire body was going to collapse.

“I don’t put oranges on my Seder plate. I like tradition and Seders with big families. I’m sorry if that makes me backward or bigoted. I can’t help it. I’m not used to whatever this is. None of this is normal! How am I supposed to behave like this is a natural situation?”

A few Hasidic families on the block were having their own Seders, and upon hearing Lev scream, young children stepped out onto their outdoor staircases to watch the drama unfold. Even the students on the balcony across the street paused their music and stared.

“I don’t come from a family like yours,” continued Lev. “I wish I did but we’re traditional. I wish I could talk about my feelings as easily as you can. I wish I could do something half as nice as this for you but . . .” Lev noticed they had an audience. The gazes closed in on him, making the one-way street feel narrower.

“But you’re embarrassed to be seen with me.” Max crossed his arms. He could feel his throat tightening. “Because you’re still ashamed of me.”

“No,” said Lev quietly. Tears started streaming down his face. “It’s not that. When I was a kid, I learned that things are supposed to be one way, and then, since meeting  you, I discovered something totally different. And now I’m this mess of a person trying to make sense of these different rules.” Lev’s voice croaked. “I want you to know I’m trying.”

“I’m trying too! I’m trying to be patient. I’m trying to be good,” Max exclaimed, ripping off his apron. “Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing either. I barely know how to cook, let alone prepare a Seder. I know you care about this day and I want to respect that. But I’m not going to apologize for being who I am and neither should you.” Looking up at the sky, Max noticed dark clouds stirring above. He beckoned to Lev, “Please come inside. It’s going to rain.”

 “That’s the thing!” said Lev, his arms outstretched. “I don’t deserve you at all. This is the most thoughtful thing anyone’s ever done for me and I’ve been a total jerk to you.” Thunder boomed, but Lev grew louder. “You’re so amazing to me. You’re so sure of yourself and you’re patient with me. You show me all this affection and care and warmth, and I’m so scared.” 

“Scared of what?” Max’s whole body felt like it was about to cave in. He noticed the first drops of rain hitting the balcony, it was like some cosmic power could sense their impending breakup. Max closed his eyes as he prepared for the worst.

“I’m scared because I feel the exact same way about you,” said Lev, at last. “I have no idea how to tell you I love you. Either I’m going to lose control of myself and blurt it out or keep these feelings so deep inside that you’ll never know how much you’ve changed my life. And, frankly, either of those outcomes sound terrifying. ”

Max opened his eyes, and then he stared at Lev, too shocked to say anything.

Thunder exploded and the sky roared. Rain pelted down, flooding the plants and road below. Max jumped back and ducked for cover under the above balcony’s awning. Lev stayed on the staircase. The raindrops were heavier and sharper than anything he had experienced before. Yet the downpour made the street look somehow warmer, brighter. Lev stared at the rain on his arm. The drops were stickier than usual and the rain had a fresh, citrusy scent. “Orange juice,” whispered Lev, licking his fingers. “Unbelievable. It’s raining orange juice.”

Max stepped into the open. He held his arm out and opened his mouth. The rain was sweet and acidic. It drizzled down his chin, leaving a bright stain on his tank top. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, staring up at the clouds.

 “I disagree. It makes total sense,” said Lev, as orange raindrops soaked his face. Lev’s Oxford shirt was drenched and the sticky substance trickled down his khakis. His sobbing stopped and he started to laugh. “It’s not what you’d expect during a Passover Seder,” said Lev, as he started walking back up the staircase, “but it’s colourful and peculiar and surprisingly delicious and . . . it feels right.” He walked up the staircase till he was a step below Max. Here, they were the same height. “Oh, Max, how could I ever feel ashamed of you? You’re perfect.” 

“What are you—

Lev kissed Max on the lips, his hands cradling the back of his head.

Max pulled back for a moment and glanced around, aware that everyone else on the street could see them kissing in public. But everyone was too bewildered by the fizzy rain to notice. The Hasidic families raced down the balconies and started laughing and dancing on the street. The French students pulled out a bucket so they could collect as much juice as possible, while others jumped out onto the pavement and took selfies in the rain. And even if their neighbours were looking at the two men kissing on the staircase it didn’t matter anymore. Lev pulled Max in closer and kissed him again.

“It doesn’t make any sense and that’s why it’s perfect,” said Lev, his arms wrapped around his boyfriend’s waist. He stared into Max’s eyes. He felt the orange juice run down in the space between their chests, every inch of their bodies sticky and soaking wet. “I’m sorry I freaked out today. Maybe there’s more personal stuff I need to work on than I realized. I was being snappy and judgmental and it wasn’t fair to you at all. Your Seder was incredible even if your cooking could use some work. Babe, I’ll try to keep an open mind if you promise to buy matzo ball soup from a box next time?”   

Max stepped on Lev’s foot.

“Ow! Right. Sorry, that was mean. As I said, I’ll work on it.” Lev smirked, and brushed the curly, wet hair out of Max’s eyes. “By the way, I wasn’t joking before. I really do love you. You gave me the courage to finally say it.”

Max blushed, his mouth gaping open. He kept searching for the right words to say but, for once, Lev was able to articulate his own feelings better than Max. He stared at his neighbours frolicking in the bright, juicy rain. Eventually, he turned back to Lev and softly asked, “Next year in Jerusalem?” 

The sun squeezed in through the clouds, illuminating the orange-soaked ground below. The storm was sticky and sour but the space between them felt secluded and sweet. Lev pulled Max in closer. “No,” said Lev, lifting his boyfriend in the air for the whole street to see. “Next year, right here.”

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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