Divided Attention – Chapter 12

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 12 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

Rafi’s eyes fluttered open. It wasn’t dark anymore and he heard voices from outside. He lay silently and listened to the distant noises, and, deciding that the coast was clear, he clambered out from behind the piles of junk and ran down the path leading to the street. Now he had to find the way home. Maybe Ima would prepare soup for him today…

Teeth chattering, he ran in the direction that seemed most probable to him. A group of well dressed people stood waiting at the nearby bus stop. The boy observed them all for a moment and chose an elderly woman who looked nicer than the rest. He walked over to her and stopped, waiting for her to notice him.

“Oh, my!” she suddenly exclaimed. “Why aren’t you wearing a coat on a day like this?”

Rafi saw no reason to answer the question. “How do I get from here to Kiryat Yovel?” he asked, blinking rapidly. His entire body trembled.

“You’re shaking all over!” she reprimanded. “What mother sends her child out like this on such a day?” A bus pulled up. “I think this bus will take you there; let’s ask the driver.” She tried to take Rafi’s hand but he evaded her grip.

The driver confirmed that indeed, he was headed for Kiryat Yovel. “You getting on, kid?” he asked Rafi.

“Yes, of course,” the woman said, patting Rafi’s shoulder. “You need this bus, right, dearie?”

“I have no money,” he mumbled. “Ronny left and didn’t give me…” He didn’t care that he was mentioning the older boy’s name. Nothing mattered anymore.

Oy vey, vey,” the woman clucked. “Poor girl! Tell this Ronny that that’s no way to behave!” She boarded the bus and Rafi followed her. “Punch once here for the girl,” she instructed the driver, proffering her bus card. “Wait, don’t go. I’m not coming with you.” She waved at Rafi and got off. Rafi wanted to tell her goodbye and to point out that he was a boy, not a girl, but his throat hurt so much that he just couldn’t get a single syllable out.

He sat huddled in his seat, leaning his head on the window. A truck rumbled along in the next lane. Rafi was unaware that by the time he’d awoken it was already ten o’clock a.m. and that now it was almost eleven. He also didn’t know that he had fever, and only felt a burning sensation rising in his neck and spreading to his cheeks.

When the bus reached the familiar stop on his street, he rose and debarked carefully, holding onto the handrail. The entire street danced around him and he didn’t understand why the cars were driving crookedly. He walked slowly along the sidewalk, goaded along by the knowledge that he had to get home fast so those people wouldn’t catch him.

Suddenly he saw the silver corrugated fence on his right side; despite his blurred vision he recognized it. It was the empty lot behind his house. That’s where he had played until a year ago, when the tractors came and began to dig there. Rafi, like most children, liked to sneak in behind the fence and watch the Arab construction workers—until he’d be discovered and chased away with threats and shouts.

Drops began spattering down from the sky and Rafi found an opening between two of the aluminum fence sections. He knew that he could get home from here, and even if he wouldn’t have the strength to climb on the mounds of dirt that separated the lot from his house, he could at least find shelter from the rain in the unfinished building. The Arab workers probably hadn’t come to work in this weather; they hadn’t been coming for at least two days already.

He began to descend into the lot, the wet mud sticking to his new shoes.

***

Ayala added the conversation with Pessy to the list of points she had written on the inside cover of her green journal. That was also related to school, wasn’t it? The problem was that their walk had taken place the night before, while in the journal, she was holding in the middle of Cheshvan, a month behind.

Light knocking broke the stillness of the teacher’s room and Ayala rose to open the door. “Hello, Nava,” she said, smiling at her student. “Are there problems at practice?”

Mrs. Blumenstock walked in from the secretary’s office at that moment. “Practicing for the Chanukah party, I assume?” she asked. “But the next class is normal, right, Ayala?”

“Of course, b’ezras Hashem.” Ayala motioned for Nava to step out.

Mrs. Blumenstock sat down in a chair at the table. “What do you think? Should we arrange for the two grades to do something together?”

Ayala held the doorknob. “I don’t think so, Ita. Let’s leave the joint activities for another time. If the girls from tenth grade are so opposed to working with the ninth graders, why should we force them into it?”

“But I don’t like the whole attitude,” Ita said, clearing the table with a few quick motions. “I never dreamed the idea would generate such opposition. Did you?”

“Truthfully, no,” Ayala conceded. “But the tenth graders are still just a bit babyish, that’s all. They’ll mature, b’ezras Hashem, and will realize that being big doesn’t mean separating themselves from the grade below them.”

“I really hope so,” the assistant principal said. She looked at Ayala. “You have a student waiting for you outside, remember?”

“Oh, right. I’m going to her right now.” Ayala opened the door and walked out. “Sorry about that, Nava. What’s going on?”

“It has nothing to do with practice,” Nava replied and flipped her ponytail back over her shoulder. Ayala knew by now that that was a sign of unease. “I wanted to speak to you.”

“Sure. But what about your group’s practice?”

“I’ve finished my part,” she said and smiled. “And the girls can get along just fine without me. I don’t really like performing anyway.”

Ayala nodded and listened attentively.

“My parents want to take in a foster child,” Nava began.  A small crease appeared between her eyes and after a moment she added, “What if he gets a hundred on all his tests? Won’t that be a sign that I’m right?”

“Right about what?” Ayala asked innocently, although she knew perfectly well to what Nava was referring.

 

Later at home, when the first round of bedtime was over, Ayala sat down at the kitchen table and began to write in her journal. The date? The twenty-seventh of Cheshvan, approximately. And she wouldn’t specify names in this entry.

“Something new happened to me today. I had a personal conversation with a student who approached me of her own initiative. It was surprising, because I haven’t summoned any of the girls for a private talk yet. Firstly, I’m a bit afraid of taking that step, as I have never done it before. It wasn’t part of my job when I was a teacher for just specific subjects, and I’ve been avoiding it, especially since Sari has warned me a thousand times, ‘Don’t have personal talks with your students all day, Ima,’ in that voice she uses when she tries educating her little brothers about something and sometimes tries to use to educate me as well. ‘They’ll think that you’re trying to look for problems.'”

Ayala stopped and quickly erased part of what she’d written. That’s the way she was; writing three words and erasing two. It was a good thing she’d chosen to use a pencil today, because she had no idea where the White-out was.

She smiled to herself as she remembered the first time Nava had approached her. It had been at the twelve o’clock break. She had gone into the secretary’s room to get something and was surprised to see her student standing on the side, near the open door of the cabinet, as though hiding from someone. Nava had gazed at Ayala with what seemed like expectation in her eyes.

“Are you looking for something, Nava?” Ayala had asked in a friendly tone, even though the girl did not look like she was looking for anything.

“Yes, I’m waiting for you,” Nava replied, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder and adding the sentence that Ayala had heard at least six times in the last month. “Uh… I wanted to speak to you.”

“No problem; I’m listening,” Ayala had said casually.

Nava’s eyes looked alarmed. “No, not here.”

“Ah, you’d prefer that no one see us?” Ayala asked, and chided herself for not understanding that herself.

“I don’t mind if they see,” the girl said, clearly discomfited. “But…um…if you could call me. I don’t want them to see that I waited…uh…that I wanted…”

“That’s fine, Nava, I understand,” Ayala said. Apparently, girls who approached teachers of their own accord were liable to be labeled—in not a very complimentary way.  She would try to call Nava herself. “Will tomorrow be alright? Is it something that can wait?”

“Uh…yes, I think so.”

By the next day, Ayala had completely forgotten about the whole exchange, but at the end of the second lesson she noticed Nava whispering something to her seatmate.

“Nava?” she asked, clearly surprised. And then she remembered.

Nava blushed furiously and straightened up in her seat, lowering her eyes to the desk. Her classmates also raised eyebrows. Since when did anyone hear Nava’s name being called during a lesson? Ayala hoped that she herself wasn’t blushing as she rummaged around in her bag for nothing special, and said, “See me after class, please.”

After the bell, Nava waited for her near the door, casting furtive glances in all directions. Her classmates considerately kept a distance.

“I’m sorry for talking in class, Morah.”

“Oh, that wasn’t so bad, taking into account that it was the first time.” Ayala smiled, her arms folded. “I wouldn’t have thought of telling you to see me for it, if you wouldn’t have asked me yesterday. So, what’s the issue, Nava?”

“I wanted to ask if you could raise my mark in dinim.

Ayala raised an eyebrow. That’s what this was all about? But why all the secrecy? Girls approached her with similar requests even when five or six girls were standing around her. And she didn’t remember Nava’s mark being all that bad!

“What did you get?” she asked and noticed for the first time that her student was holding a folded sheet of paper.

“Eighty-six.”

“That’s a very good mark.”

“I know, Morah,” Nava said, her face dreadfully solemn. “But I’m asking anyway… I think my parents would be happier if I got a higher mark. I studied a lot with my father. Um…if it’s absolutely impossible, then that’s okay. But I wanted to ask if you could check my test again.”

“You think your parents will appreciate you more if you show them a test that says eighty-eight on it instead of eighty-six?” Ayala tried to joke.

But Nava remained very serious. “Yes, Morah,” she whispered. “Yes.”

***

The spider fled in a panic as the long-handled brush jabbed at its web that it had worked so hard on for three whole days.

It was nice to be a homemaker after so many long years of working hard. In all honesty, teaching, especially in a university, had never been suited for her, but when that was the job that was offered, her mother had said, “Take it with two hands, Yael. You’ll never make money doing historical research; lecturing is very lucrative.”

She had taken the job, but hadn’t been happy. As far as the salary, her mother had been right, of course. But everything else was all wrong. Strong rhetoric was not her forte, and imposing discipline was extremely out of character for her.

The only thing that kept her courses from falling apart was the fact that her tests had earned a frightful reputation. “They’re too hard,” the students would complain after four hours of feverish writing. But they tried to be attentive during the lessons, even if only to get a good grade on the test.

Perhaps they were hard, that was true, but Yael believed that if you chose to study history, you had to know it. And if you got an eighty on her tests, that was a real compliment. Knowing eighty percent out of a hundred percent of history? Why, that was an enormous amount of knowledge!

In any case, it was all a thing of the past. Several months after the drastic lifestyle changes they had made, she felt that if university teaching hadn’t been ideal for her until then, it certainly was not what she wanted to be doing now. She easily abandoned her well-paying job in favor of staying home.

Seven years had passed since then and she didn’t feel at all worn out from keeping house. Apparently, housekeeping was a job that suited her and her homebody nature, although before they’d become religious, the thought of not going to work had never even crossed her mind. In the secular world, being a stay-at-home mom was considered a failure. So she’d worked every day, even at times when doing so was extremely burdensome, such as when Shimon was very young.

He wasn’t an easy child at all. Every drop-off at the day care center—even late in the school year—involved violent shrieking and tantrums on Shimon’s part. “You’re the only one who’s moved by his screaming,” Lola, the head caregiver would tell her. “He knows that it affects you. Two minutes after you leave, he’s happily playing with everyone else.” But Yael didn’t see him playing; she just heard him shrieking, and all the pleas of the caregivers that she go already, and all their reassurances that everything would be fine, only caused her to feel more guilty about her job.

In kindergarten the situation improved somewhat, although Shimon didn’t stop crying completely. But then came the endless colds, ear infections, and flu viruses that kept her constantly on the run. “He is simply demanding attention,” Manny would tell her, not realizing that his observations only increased her pressure instead of mitigating it. The boy was broadcasting that she did not spend enough time with him! She would stay at home whenever she could, and sometimes she would bring him to her parents’ house or bring a babysitter to her house, but then whoever was watching him would have to deal with a sick child who screamed nonstop. Like most children, when Shimon was sick, his fear of strangers only became more acute.

Yael had wanted to leave her job a thousand times, but when you get used to two salaries, it’s hard to suddenly manage on one. She barely managed to juggle her job, which demanded a lot of preparation, the house, and Shimon, even once he started school.

The years marched on. Shimon grew into a teenager and all of his childhood problems seemed minor compared to the new ones that arose. Nava was born when he was in high school, and Yael extended her maternity leave for as long as she could. Shimon was thrilled. Although at that age, teens usually try to prove their independence, he would come home to seek his mother’s listening ear. His little sister was most amenable—she was a very placid baby who ate nicely, slept a lot, and didn’t cry much, leaving his mother free to give him attention.

And then that tranquil period in their lives came to an end and Yael returned to work. The problems, which had seemed to disappear behind a smokescreen for a few months, returned with full force. Shimon’s teen years were as tumultuous as could be. There were dozens of complaints from his high school principals and he rejected all of her or Manny’s attempts to speak to him. It wasn’t like they had a lot of time to devote to him, but whenever they did try, he didn’t want to listen.

Towards the end of high school, things improved a little. It seemed as though finally, finally, Shimon had matured. He formed new ties with Manny, and Yael suddenly discovered herself sidelined, but she didn’t really mind. Who cared if Shimon preferred to speak to Manny or to her, as long as he was seeking a listening ear, and not from among his friends, who, like him, were wallowing deep in the foolish teenage years! And those father-son ties were so important, weren’t they? Until that point, Manny had never shared a warm relationship with his only son.

But then, Manny and Yael began their journey of “What Are We Doing With Our Lives,” as Manny called the period of questions before they began making changes, and the situation with Shimon quickly regressed, as he spiraled right back into those stormy times.

Manny blamed himself and his fervent kiruv attempts, if you could call them “kiruv attempts;” an observer would probably have described them as “pulling and tugging attempts”.

Yael blamed herself and her job. It was clear to her that if Shimon had grown up with a full-time mother, he would have turned out differently. More sensitive and attentive to others; closer to his parents.

But how could they blame themselves, under the circumstances? How much responsibility did they have over Shimon and his choices anyway? She was distressed about this, as well as about the whole warped education that Shimon had received, mourning the loss of the prime years of his life just as she mourned the lost years of her own life.

But to blame themselves for it?

They tried to rectify things, doing what they could with the facts at hand, trying to remember that their sins had turned into merits.

Nevertheless, Manny was wallowing in a pool of guilt.

***

It was one o’clock when Rina came into Rafi’s classroom. “No sign of him yet?” she asked Mrs. Davidi.

“No,” the teacher replied, and colored in the tail of a dog in the notebook of one of her students. “Come on, Mickey, fill in the answers already!”

“Have you told Sarah that he’s missing?”

“Yes. She told me she’d be making a house visit in any case today and would see what happened there.”

Rina went back to her room and continued with her other work. Children went in and out of her office, but she felt that part of her brain was in some unknown location. It was wherever Rafi Zimmer was at that moment

She had been planning to go to her in-laws’ house today after work to speak to them, and had decided—daringly—to take Rafi with her. She thought her in-laws would be more impressed by Rafi if they saw him in real life, despite his shabby, unkempt appearance, than if they would just hear about him. The stories about him really made him sound hopeless. But a sensitive eye—and with all of her opinions about her husband’s parents, she knew that they were extremely sensitive—could discern some very positive attributes in this boy. She saw these attributes, and they were what drew her to Rafi’s case in the first place.

She knew she wasn’t following the welfare department protocol, but Sarah seemed pleased that she was trying to intervene. She was obviously fed up with dealing with the case. But she had asked Rina on what grounds she had decided that the Cohen family was ideal for Rafi.

“There are lots of other excellent families in our database,” Sarah had said, raising her eyebrows. “Haven’t you learned that there has to be basic suitability between the child and the family? Really, to put him with an Orthodox family? He’s the last one I would think would be suited for such a thing!”

“It’s not a professional consideration at all,” Rina said, thinking that perhaps she was making a mistake by admitting this. “In my field, you often have to work with your gut feeling, and that’s what’s guiding me now. For some reason, I think that what he needs is my mother-in-law’s warmth and love, the strength of a father figure, and the combination of both of them in their daughter, who will pamper him like he’s her only brother. Between us, a religious kid is better than a criminal, isn’t it?”

Sarah didn’t argue. She had tried so many things with Rafi, and another attempt wouldn’t add or detract anything, especially when the only choice she was left with was an institution. “He’s already run away from two foster families after a very short time. A day arrangement, where he went home only to sleep, also didn’t work out. He is very hostile to the woman who goes to their house, and his mother also doesn’t make things easier there. So you’re welcome to try. I wish you luck.”

So that’s what she wanted to do—try. But now, as if on purpose, Rafi had disappeared.

When the workday was over, Rina walked out of the school and decided to walk past Rafi’s house. She found a youth knocking at the door when she arrived. She stood quietly and waited to see what would happen.

“Are you here for Zimmer? No one’s opened all morning,” the youth said. “Either he doesn’t want to open the door, or he’s not home.” He knocked again.

Something in his gaze didn’t sit well with Rina. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“What’s it your business?” Ronny snapped and pressed his ear to the door. She hoped that this wasn’t a violent youth who was preying on Rafi. Another good reason to get him out of here as quickly as possible.

The door suddenly opened. The woman who stood there looked Rina up and down with red, blinking eyes, and yawned loudly. “What do you want?” she asked Rina, not even paying attention to Ronny.

“I understand that you’re Rafi’s mother. Nice to meet you. I’m his guidance counselor at school.”

The woman stared at her, yawned again, and fell silent.

“I’d like to speak to Rafi. May I?”

His mother turned around and walked away from the door, leaving Rina and Ronny standing there for a few long moments.

“You think she went to call him?” Ronny asked impatiently.

“Maybe,” Rina said doubtfully and looked at the messy hallway. The heavy steps inside the house fell silent and a door slammed.

“Well, I’m going in to look for him,” the youth said after another minute of waiting. In a flash, he was inside.

He was back a few minutes later. “He’s not here. But one room is locked. You want to go in and find out if he’s there with his mother?”

“Okay. If I see him, should I give him a message from you?”

“I’ll wait here.” Ronny leaned on the railing. “Personal stuff.”

Rina entered the house, wrinkling her nose in distaste at the scene that met her eyes. The odor was awful. “Limor?” she called to the closed door, hoping that she had correctly remembered the mother’s name. Two seconds passed and she heard a creaking noise. Then the door to the room opened.

“What do you want? Get out of here!” the woman groaned.

“Can I come in, please?” Rina asked. Without a word, the woman let her pass. No, Rafi was not in the room, and all she found under the bed were huge dust bunnies.

“Now get out of here,” Rafi’s mother suddenly said and wrapped herself in a coat that was thrown on the floor near the bed. “I’m going to the National Insurance office to get my money.” Rina was happy that the youth she’d met outside wasn’t there in the room; she didn’t want him to hear that last sentence. You couldn’t know anything with today’s youth.

“Why don’t you pay a cleaning lady to clean up here a little?” she asked a bit aggressively.

“Enough people come to my house,” the woman responded, surprisingly sounding no less aggressive. “Sarah, and the lady she brings, and the teacher, and you.”

“If you’d take care of your son yourself, we wouldn’t have to interfere with what’s going on here,” Rina said, trying to look into the other woman’s eyes in an effort to make eye contact. But Rafi’s mother had turned her back and was walking to the front door, and Rina had the feeling that the woman was capable of locking the door with her guest still inside. In a fit of panic, she quickly passed the mother and walked to the door.

Ronny stood downstairs; he’d lost patience. He was deliberating whether he should continue to be involved in the search for Rafi or not. On the one hand, he didn’t want this guidance counselor to know of the connection between Rafi and him. On the other hand, he had to know what had happened to Rafi so he could plan his next move.

The counselor stopped next to him. “You’re his friend; do you have any idea where he could be?”

“I’m not his friend,” Ronny replied coldly. Keep a distance, keep a distance. “Someone asked me to tell him something important, that’s all.”

Ronny was pretty sure that he did know a thing or two about Rafi’s whereabouts. In all likelihood, Rafi was sitting in a police station somewhere and keeping stubbornly silent. The question was only how the situation would finish. Would Rafi manage to flee? Would he squeal? Would he be released? Even if Rafi wouldn’t squeal, Ronny knew he had to be very careful because of this last possibility. If the police had released Rafi, they would no doubt be maintaining a close eye on him for a while, keeping tabs on who came to Rafi’s home and with whom he was in contact.

Rina knew that there was no point in asking this youth any more questions; there was no chance of extracting answers from the closed face. She took out her cellular phone and called Sarah. First she had to report what was happening. What next?

“Okay, maybe we’ll contact the police if we don’t find him soon,” she said aloud.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Ronny said with forced casualness. The police would not have to work too hard to make the connection between the child who had disappeared and the boy they had found. From there, it wouldn’t take long for them to find Ronny. “My brother’s in his class, and they come home around now. I can ask the kids to look for him a little in the area.”

The kids wouldn’t do anything themselves if he wouldn’t organize the search, but he preferred to leave that little detail out; what the counselor didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. As far as she was concerned, he was staying out of the picture.

 


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