Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 3 of a new online serial novel, Divided Attention, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © 2010 by Israel Bookshop Publications
Ayala’s green notebook became filled with her close, neat handwriting.
I held the list in my hand. Auerbach, Arnon, Ben Shlomo, Badani, Guttenberg… They were all new names. I didn’t recognize a single one of them and did not know which of the faces sitting before me belonged to which name. I observed a few faces that had closed expressions, as though these girls had made a firm decision not to enjoy a single thing that happened there. I didn’t know if they were the girls who had been accepted to the old school and had been forced to switch, or perhaps they were the girls who hadn’t been accepted anywhere. For me, they were all new, sweet girls. New faces, a new page of new names, in a brand new attendance book.
At the back of the classroom, a diminutive figure sat up straight. Why had she chosen to sit so far back? I was inclined to tell her to change seats with someone sitting closer up front, but at the last second I remembered that I’d better get to know her first, at least a little, before I made any changes.
“Horner, Avital.” Ah, so that girl with the glasses on the left was Avital. Interesting; I thought that at this age the girls already wore lenses, I mused.
Ayala stopped writing, re-calibrating her thoughts to ensure that they flowed along the path she wanted them to take. She couldn’t write about Nava in this entry the same way she would write about her in a more up-to-date entry. She had to write from the point of view of those first few days in the classroom, when she had first come face-to-face with Nava Cohen and her very serious pair of eyes. Those eyes did not even respond to the teacher’s nod and smile. When her name had been called, Nava had risen stiffly, nodded, and then quickly sat down again. Her hands had been folded, her long ponytail falling over her right shoulder.
Ayala wrinkled her forehead in concentration and continued writing in the journal.
“Nava Cohen”. A name that didn’t say much. Sephardic? Ashkenazic? Baalas teshuvah? The brown ponytail flung carelessly over her shoulder simply did not jibe with the serious expression on her face. She seemed to be a very interesting person indeed.
Ayala closed the journal and smoothed her hand over the cover. She could not restrain herself from adding that last sentence that indicated the subsequent connection that formed between teacher and student. But that was the truth then as well; there was something fascinating about Nava from that very first day.
Her wallet was still intact in her pocket, and Rina was ashamed of her suspicions. From the moment she paid until she took him back to the classroom, Rafi didn’t make a sound. She didn’t speak either, except for, “Do you want me to come with you to your classroom?” She did not receive an answer, of course, and therefore accompanied him to the beginning of the corridor and observed as he walked towards the classroom door, pushed it opened, and then disappeared inside the room.
As soon as she returned to her office, she picked up the phone and dialed the municipal welfare office. The staff there was familiar with the name. “Zimmer?” repeated the receptionist. “Sarah is responsible for that case. Wait a minute; let me check if she’s here.”
Sarah was there, and she sounded like a rather cold person to Rina—colder than a social worker was supposed to sound. Well, she didn’t have to brim with friendliness to every anonymous caller who introduced herself as a guidance counselor and a social worker herself. Still…
“He wasn’t lying,” Sarah told Rina after hearing what she had to say. “The problem there isn’t food; we take care of that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard that he’s been caught stealing.”
What did everyone want from this quiet little boy? Rina was puzzled. “So if food isn’t the problem, then what is the problem?”
“The mother’s emotional state. She basically ignores him, and, as I’m sure you’ve learned over the course of your studies, the emotional deficiencies this kind of situation creates are terrible. Thievery is a very common manifestation of such a situation.”
“And I get the impression that you are simply sitting and waiting to be informed that he’s actually stolen something!” Rina felt a wave of anger. “You and his teacher—you both have the same attitude. Why don’t you do something to change the situation?” She didn’t know if it was right for her to care so much. He was not the first child she had met, but something about him touched her very deeply, although she did not know what it was.
“I don’t think I have to be the recipient of your rebuke over the phone,” Sarah said crisply. Let’s see this trainee after two years of dealing with Rafi, she thought to herself. Two years? She had been burdened with this complex, difficult case for a lot more than three years already! But she and Rafi hadn’t clicked from the first minute, which was a real shame.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. It wasn’t very courteous of me. But can I ask you one more question?”
“How do you perceive him, from your point of view?”
For some reason, Sarah did not like the way the question was worded. Nevertheless, she answered, “I think it is very obvious that the child was raised without any norms, without any values, without the influence of a home or of school.”
An image of Mrs. Davidi flashed through Rina’s mind.
“And therefore,” Sarah continued, “his problems are basically centered around his lack of discipline, his impudence, violence, and the like. He’s just a difficult child. Do you understand what I mean?”
“Just a minute. You mentioned violence. His teacher noted the same thing, but for some reason, I got the impression that he’s on the defensive most of the time.”
“Really? Defending himself from his one-year-old sister?”
Rina retracted. “No, I was referring to his classmates.”
“Well, then, you know that there, too, he’s up to his ears in trouble. But I was talking about his sister. One of the reasons that we have to take her out of the house is him.”
“And not because of her mother’s lack of care?”
Sarah felt a need to protect Limor Zimmer. “She does take care of her, but minimally. Well, obviously, that is also one of the reasons we took the child out.”
“You’ve already taken her out? His teacher told me that it was in the planning stages. I didn’t realize it had already been done.”
“This morning,” Sarah replied. “Rafi doesn’t even know yet. We’re hoping to be able to get him out of there, too, in the very near future.”
Rina toyed with the flip top on her chocolate milk bottle. “What are you planning to do with him?”
Sarah murmured something unclear. “Right now, it’s being looked into. There are institutions for children with emotional problems, whether genetic or environment-related. I imagine that you’ve heard about them. I think that—”
Rina pushed the bottle away. “An institution? What this child is lacking, in my opinion, is a bit of warmth and love. Why send him to an institution? Why not to one of the many foster families on the list?”
“I see that he’s captivated you already, young lady, but behind those cute curls is a very sly mind. Do you think we haven’t looked into all the options? Last year, we tried to place him with a very warm, wonderful family.”
“What do you think? They didn’t even last a week.”
“They asked you to take him back?”
“I don’t remember if they asked or not, but the upshot of the story was that he ran away after five days. He simply could not comprehend the concept of being told to brush his teeth, to eat lunch at a certain hour, and to refrain from taking an evening stroll at three in the morning. Am I making myself clear to you?”
Rina remained silent.
“So, I imagine I’ve shed some light on what you’re dealing with, young lady. And if not, then before you start imagining dizzying, impressive success stories with him, let me spell it out straight for you: Rafi and success just don’t go hand in hand. Forget it.”
Rafi trudged down the sidewalk, dragging his leg. Mrs. Davidi had admonished him today for the way he was walking, but he hadn’t even deigned to give her a response. He didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of seeing his torn sole. She would have called Sarah, who would have come over right away and had a conversation with him in her irritating voice. It was silly to say conversation; he had long ago ceased to answer her million questions.
Shira was the only one Sarah was really worried about. Rafi also worried about Shira; he loved her, even though everyone thought he hated her. True, she had once fallen down the stairs and everyone thought he had done it on purpose. They didn’t understand that all he had wanted to do was take her for a walk, but she had fallen out of his arms. She was so heavy; unlike him, Ima did feed her—mashed bananas and things like that.
Sarah said that when he had been little, Ima had fed him, too. But he didn’t believe Sarah anymore; not her promises, nor her threats that she would take him to an institution. Let them just try to take him! He had his ways of escaping, just like he’d escaped from that family that Sarah had tried to place him with last year. She thought that he hadn’t heard her talking to them when she’d first brought him over. But she always whispered so loudly, it was impossible for him not to overhear her.
“Limits. Limits. That’s what this child needs,” Sarah had told the father conspiratorially. At first, Rafi had thought that “limits” was the name of a food, or even a game, but it didn’t take too long for him to realize that “limits” was something much more annoying than that.
“Rafi, it’s six o’clock already. Please help pick up the toys,” the mother had said to him. What toys? As though he’d played with something. He had just stood next to the wall and stared at the family’s three children. They had tried to get him to join their game, but he hadn’t responded to them. He always preferred to first get to know the people with whom he was dealing before he let them get to know him.
“He didn’t play with us, Abba, so he doesn’t have to pick up any toys,” one of the girls piped up.
Her father looked at her through narrowed eyes. “Quiet, Meital. I wasn’t talking to you! Rafi, I’m asking you to pick up the toys now. We’re going to eat, and you want to eat with us, don’t you?”
Rafi didn’t answer—and didn’t pick up anything either.
And dinner? No one even bothered to look at him. They all took their trays and settled themselves on the couch in front of the television screen.
“Rafi, dear, I prepared you a plate,” the mother said in a sticky-sweet voice. “It’s on the kitchen table.”
He liked that; they had prepared something especially for him. He went into the kitchen and sat down to eat. Alone. He didn’t go to them, and no one came to him. It wasn’t only his mother who wasn’t interested in him; they weren’t either. He sat and ate, until a little girl peeked into the kitchen and hollered, “Yes, he’s eating!”
Rafi felt his appetite dissipate. He got up, left the kitchen, and headed towards the door. He wanted to explore the new neighborhood. But they didn’t let him…
Shaking off the unpleasant memories, Rafi ascended the steps to his building, fingering the key in his pocket.
“You’re a responsible boy,” Sarah had told him when she gave him the key. “You know that Ima doesn’t always have the strength to get up and open the door, or that she’s not home sometimes. You won’t lose this key, right?”
Of course not. He’d never lost the key; it was always in his pocket. When he wanted to beat up someone, he would first hide the key someplace so it wouldn’t fall out of his pocket in the scuffle. He’d never even forgotten where he’d hidden it. He was big already. On February tenth, he would turn nine.
He finally reached the top floor and almost tripped over his knapsack that was tossed on the floor. He hadn’t had the strength to lug it to school in the morning; it was too heavy, as it often was. Maybe Sarah had been there and had looked through it? She always wanted to organize his things, although he didn’t let her.
Rafi bent over the briefcase, tugging at the zipper on the front pocket. That was the most important, secret place. That was where he kept all the notes that kids put on his desk. He didn’t always pay those kids back right away; sometimes he waited a week, even two or more, but he never forgot to repay them.
“Zimmer, right? Are you Rafi?”
Rafi whirled around in surprise. His fists were clenched. How had these two big boys come up the stairs so quietly? Rafi assessed them with cold eyes, evaluating the distance between himself and the handrail.
“You’re Rafi, right?” the heavier of the two repeated.
Rafi just stared at them, breathing quietly.
“Our friend is waiting for you; he wants to talk to you.”
Rafi hesitated for a minute. Should he go with them? It was likely to be more interesting than walking around the house and staring at the chairs and walls. Besides, he had a lot more options of running away from them in the street, if he so chose. If they entered the house after him, it could be bad.
The minute Rafi began to walk downstairs, the two older boys leaped to either of his sides, as though they were his appointed bodyguards, and, flanking him in this way, they began to walk down the stairs. This sudden move did not sit well with Rafi. When they reached the ground floor and turned to leave, Rafi stopped, considering for a moment, and rolled the key between his palms. He’d better hide it here, just in case.
“Now leave,” he said firmly.
“What?” Shai thought he hadn’t heard right.
“Get out. I want to hide the key.”
The two lads looked at each other. “We’re not going anywhere,” Gil said menacingly. “And you’re coming with us now, got it?” He grabbed Rafi’s hand.
“Leave me alone!” Rafi brushed off the offending hand brusquely. “I’ll go with you; you don’t have to drag me. But soon. Now get out!”
“We can’t,” Shai said, almost gently. Perhaps that would work with the foolish kid. “We’re afraid you’ll run away.”
Rafi raised his eyes to meet theirs. “Then you stand there, but turn around,” he said to Shai, pushing him towards the door of the apartment building. “So you know I won’t run out. And you,” he turned to Gil, the other boy, “go up to the next floor to make sure I don’t run upstairs and hide from you, but don’t peek down here.”
“Why?” Gil was completely befuddled.
“I want to hide my key, but I don’t want you to see where I put it,” Rafi explained as though speaking to toddlers.
“Nu, Gil, get upstairs. We’re wasting time,” Shai urged his friend. The older boys both looked a bit stunned.
Rafi waited until Gil’s feet disappeared above him. Then he checked that Shai was facing the other way. Only when he was assured that neither of them were looking, did he quickly shove the key under an old broken bicycle that was thrown under the stairs.
“I’m done,” he said as he stood up.
Gil sprinted downstairs and Shai entered the small lobby again. “Are you ready to come with us now?” Shai asked.
“Yeah,” said Rafi. He kicked the cracked tile at the entrance as they walked out onto the path. The path had once been lined with neat stones on either side. Now, however, the rows of stones were scattered all along it.