On Monday, I walked into biology class to find a frog and a scalpel on my lab table. Today was dissection day. Anders and I stared at the formaldehyde-soaked corpse. Neither of us wanted to touch it. “I’ll do it,” I said, reaching for the scalpel and pressing it against the slimy belly. Nothing happened.
“Think of someone you don’t like,” Anders suggested. I thought of Adam and I bore down so hard on the blade that the frog’s belly ripped open.
Alarmed, Anders said, “You must have had quite a weekend.”
“Terrific,” I said, probing in the mess of guts and tubes.
“How was the retreat?”
“Wonderful,” I said, slashing the frog’s organs.
“Where’s Spinoza today?”
My hand shook so badly that I severed one of the frog’s legs. “I don’t need Spinoza any more.”
“You finished it over the weekend?”
Tears started to my eyes. “Spinoza dumped me,” I said.
I couldn’t control the tears. I put down the scalpel, slipped from my chair and walked into the hallway outside Miss Rasmussen’s classroom.
The hallway was quiet. It smelled of wood and detergent. I slid down the rough plaster surface of the wall until I was sitting on the floor. I stared at the wooden floorboards and wept.
“Excuse me,” Anders said. I looked up. He lowered his tall body to sit on the floor next to me. “I had to see if you were all right.”
“I will be all right,” I said, wiping my face.
“What did he do to you?”
Through the pain I saw how flushed he was. I thought suddenly of what I’d learned about male animals who puffed up, or stood tall, or looked threatening to scare off their rivals. Anders’ anger seemed like that. I said, “I don’t even want to talk about it.”
“What did he ever do for you?” Anders asked savagely. “Besides make you want to read a book you didn’t like and couldn’t finish?”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t know.”
“Did he ever call you up? Or take you out? Or tell you he liked you?”
I felt a stab of pain. “He told me he’d never liked me.”
Anders knotted his big capable hands as though he wanted to wrap them around Adam’s fragile neck. He said, “Forget the part about Spinoza. And about his being Jewish. What is he besides a jerk who made you cry?”
After Anders and I talked, I thought hard about Adam. It didn’t matter what my parents said about being different. Jews didn’t have any monopoly on decency. I remembered the anger in Anders’ voice when he found out that Adam had hurt me. I’d been wrong about something else, so basic I was ashamed I had to think hard to realize it. Non-Jews could be decent too. Anders Larssen was like that. In my parents’ own term of praise, he was a mensch, a decent human being.
That was all I needed, I thought. Not a boy who was a Jew. A boy who was a mensch.